The history of the America's Cup is replete with holders loading the rules to markedly enhance their own chances. Rarely, however, can any defender have done more than Team Oracle USA to stack the racing its way.
With the overdue release of the protocol for the 35th America's Cup, it is evident that Team Australia, the Challenger of Record, has failed dismally to rein in Larry Ellison and his lieutenants. Its head, Iain Murray, says the challengers are just happy to have rules, so they can raise money and go sailing. That might suit the Australians. For Team New Zealand, however, a vital missing element, not to speak of the sharp tilting of the deck Oracle's way, make the mounting of a viable challenge far more daunting.
Absent from the protocol is confirmation of the venue for the next regatta in 2017. San Francisco, which did not derive the expected financial benefit from last year's event, is still a possibility, but San Diego, Bermuda and Chicago are other contenders. Under the protocol, the venue may be announced as late as December 31. Almost certainly, it will not be confirmed before the August 8 entry date. Conceivably, it may not be known when the deadline for the second of two US$1 million entry instalments falls on December 1. That creates considerable problems for Team NZ, much of whose building of a credible business case to justify government funding and attract corporate sponsorship depends on the host city. The level of interest will be much higher if it promises excellent market exposure.
The Government, which has so far provided $5 million to keep the syndicate afloat, will now have to decide on further funding without having that part of the puzzle. Almost certainly, it will take the plunge. But the contents of the protocol are hardly designed to cultivate that affirmation. In sum, Oracle has taken steps to counter problems that so nearly led to Team NZ claiming the Cup last year.
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Oracle will race against challengers in early elimination rounds in 2015 and 2016 in 45-foot catamarans, keeping its crew racing-sharp in the process. The clear aim is to ensure no challenger will get off to a flying start, as Team NZ did. The farcical part is that this will be an elimination series in which one of the competitors cannot be eliminated. Worse still are the conditions for the actual America's Cup match, which will be sailed in 62-foot wing-sailed foiling catamarans, requiring only eight crew. Oracle can build two of these catamarans, insuring against a catastrophic failure, while the challengers will be limited to one.
That is as beneficial to the Americans as it is unfair, given the potential for significant gear problems.
At first glance, some other aspects of the protocol seem attractive. The drop down from 72ft catamarans, with crews of 11, will mean reduced costs. But that is an obvious move because a regatta that attracts four entrants, as happened last year, is not sustainable. There is also a tipping of the hat towards the Deed of Gift for "friendly competition between foreign countries". Two of the eight crew on the 62-foot catamarans will have to be nationals of the country of their challenge. If that is designed to meet criticism of the composition of Oracle's crew in 2013, it hardly suffices. Twenty-five per cent is not a sizeable portion of any pie.
Near its beginning, the protocol states that, among its purposes, are the promotion of competitive racing, the encouragement of worldwide growth and interest in the event, and the development of commercial potential. It then goes on to undermine these tenets, especially in the case of Team NZ. Reclaiming the America's Cup has just got substantially more difficult.