America's Cup: It's really all about television schedules

By Paul Lewis

Emirates Team New Zealand, against a backdrop of bad weather and a changed wind direction yesterday, is left in the doldrums yet again yesterday  in the America's Cup.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
Emirates Team New Zealand, against a backdrop of bad weather and a changed wind direction yesterday, is left in the doldrums yet again yesterday in the America's Cup. Photo / Brett Phibbs

There's only one thing wrong with an event designed for TV coverage. TV ends up controlling it.

At 4pm in San Francisco yesterday - about an hour and a half after racing in the 34th America's Cup was called off because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction - it was a lovely day.

The rain had stopped and the wind was blowing in the right direction. It was only about 8 knots - one knot less than when Race 13 was called off after Emirates Team New Zealand were winning by a street but couldn't finish within the allotted time limit of 40 minutes (but let's not go there again).

The point is that, at 4pm, a yacht race could have been held. It wasn't, because the TV window for broadcasting the racing was closed.

"I am sure it is probably beautiful out there," said regatta director Iain Murray, "and that everyone is frustrated."

The 34th America's Cup is a made-for-TV event. The America's Cup Event Authority ended up effectively paying NBC to broadcast the Cup, as sailing is not a high rating sport in the US. TV scheduling is set in stone. They hate sports events which botch up their schedules.

The time allotted to make the race/don't race decision ends at 2.40pm in San Francisco (9.40am NZT) to fit in with TV. If the weather gods don't smile on the America's Cup in that time frame, it's all off. Doesn't matter if it comes right later, as it did yesterday. The TV window is closed; so no racing.

Originally, racing started in this regatta at 1.10pm and 2.10pm local time. Then the organisers and The Great God TV discovered that the AC72 catamarans were zapping round the course so fast, they were finishing the race in about 25 minutes. That was hard to fit in with the one-hour sport-commercial-sport commercial cycle so, abracadabra, the race start times were put back to 1.15pm and 2.15pm.
Get the picture? That's what it is all about - getting the picture.

Yesterday's racing was called off after the teams apparently declined to have the racecourse shifted around to accommodate the freaky wind direction. Regatta director Iain Murray confirmed that both teams declined. Team NZ said there was no point in them declining as OTUSA had already done so and unanimous consent is required.

Then an effort was made by Murray to have the time available to make a decision to race extended past 2.40pm. He consulted the America's Cup Event Authority and America's Cup TV, the host broadcaster. The 2.40pm cut-off remained. By that time, yesterday the wind still hadn't behaved itself. An hour and a half later, it was fine.

"We'd all like to have two races a day but unfortunately the framework of the competition was formed over a year ago and was framed around what the boats were then," said Murray. "Plus the simple fact that a southerly change came through and we were confined by what the teams wanted.

"I can understand [the teams' reluctance] as they want to have a quality race; the America's Cup deserves to have a quality race. There's hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in this and people's lives on the line - so the implications of getting the right result are super-important."

The organisers are, in these circumstances, also fond of reminding everyone that Auckland 2003 lost 10 days in a row to light winds. But the teams then sat out in the tide for hours, waiting for the wind to come up. TV schedules didn't enter into it.

"I don't think it's quite accurate to say it's all about TV," said ACEA chief executive Stephen Barclay. "We get an input to the decision [on extending the decision on whether or not to race] but we don't make it. That's Iain." Murray had earlier referred discussion on the TV cut-off times to Barclay.

Having paid for the coverage, the ACEA want full value for their money. They probably did not want to start another race and have it called off again. It's match point in the 34th America's Cup. No one wants to see it decided on a freaky, flukey day.

Fair enough - and it's also fair enough to have a large reliance on TV at such an international event. But that comes with a strong smell of stage management. It also carries a strong sense of sympathy for someone like ETNZ, who seem to be endlessly waiting for the exact, precise, fiddly set of circumstances to arrive so they can win the America's Cup.

What next - racing called off because the mercury level in the water is too high?
So there is irony surrounding an event made for TV and designed to attract new audiences to the sport. It is actually helping to ensure there is no racing. Other than that shown on TV.

As we all wait to see if there is any racing - as opposed to making a firm decision at the beginning of the day - so the new audience may go back to more exciting things. Like doing the laundry.

- NZ Herald

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