Yachting: Challenger limits and money dog cup

By Paul Lewis

San Francisco taxpayers lost money on the last America's Cup.
San Francisco taxpayers lost money on the last America's Cup.

While much attention is focused on the ongoing search for a venue for the next America's Cup in 2017, the real problem appears to be the plans by holders Oracle Team USA to limit the number of yachts going to that venue.

At present, there is talk in the America's Cup community that potential challengers are resisting OTUSA's intention that only four challengers will make the trip to San Francisco (or wherever it is decided that the Cup will next be hosted) to contest the Louis Vuitton Cup - the winner of that trophy to become the challenger to take on OTUSA for the America's Cup.

The problem, as ever, is money. To take part in the Cup, challenging syndicates need to raise money through sponsorships.

However, if there are more than four challengers, they face the prospect of seeking sponsorship dollars when the sponsor may not even be able to get exposure at the Cup if they miss out in what OTUSA are setting up essentially as qualifying rounds.

Those "qualifiers" would be the America's Cup World Series, to be sailed in 45-foot AC45 catamarans which may be upgraded to foiling yachts this time. A series of global regattas would be held with only the top four heading to the America's Cup venue with their larger America's Cup boats.

According to Cup sources, this is about as popular with challenging teams as an oil spill.

The signs are that there may well be more than four challengers. Emirates Team New Zealand, Artemis and Luna Rossa are all set to be involved along with Australia's Hamilton Island Yacht Club as the Challenger Of Record, funded by wine billionaire Bob Oatley. A British team (headed by former OTUSA team member Sir Ben Ainslie) is reported to be close to attracting enough funding to launch a challenge and a strong French challenge is syndicate forming under Yacht Club de France colours, though no signs yet that they have the money needed. Plus Korea (in particular) and China have been close to competing before.

But the word is that OTUSA backer Larry Ellison, having already spent something akin to NZ$1 billion on the Cup over a period of years, has told his chief executive, Sir Russell Coutts, to lessen Ellison's financial exposure. Asking the hosting nations in the World Series to bear the costs is one way of doing that, as is cutting the number of yachts at the Cup finals and shrinking the time taken to run the Louis Vuitton Cup and America's Cup races (the last one took place July 4-September 25).

"But you can see this from Bob Oatley's point of view," said one Cup source. "He's got to put all this money up and then gather more and he may not even get to the main event. It's a pretty hard thing to justify to sponsors - going there and asking for money and maybe not even getting to the America's Cup."

OTUSA's focus on costs also gels with an interview with Coutts in July when he talked about the need for credible challengers rather than relying on numbers.

"Let's be honest," he said then, "some of the teams in recent regattas have just been making up the numbers. There have probably been three or four teams that were a bit of a joke." He cited the first Swiss challenge in Auckland in 2000 as an example.

Meanwhile, it is not yet clear whether OTUSA's interest in other venues - San Diego has shaped as a possibility - is an effort to scare San Francisco into thinking that another US city could take their event or a genuine look at alternatives.

San Francisco's complex political landscape has seen their hosting offer reduced from last time. Official figures suggest that San Francisco taxpayers finished up US$5.5 million in the red after being told they would benefit. The 700,000 people drawn to the city over the three months spent about US$364m - rather less than the US$902m projected and way less than the $US1.4 billion originally held under the city's nose as a sweet-smelling incentive.

That has led to Coutts suggesting San Diego or Hawaii (Ellison owns the island of Lanai there) and traditional America's Cup venues like Newport, Rhode Island, could yet come into play. However, the giant catamarans favoured for the America's Cup are not deepwater craft and the big swells and deep waters of Hawaii will not suit them. Nor is there thought to be a venue there which can get spectators and cameras so close to the action to provide some of the thrills witnessed in San Francisco. San Diego, Cup sources say, could host such in-harbour racing at a pinch.

San Francisco remains everyone's favourite but, as ever with the America's Cup, if another venue comes up with the right money for Ellison and Coutts, the city's acquaintance with the Cup could be brief.

- Herald on Sunday

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