By Dylan Cleaver

Sometime over the next few months Team New Zealand's brainstrust will sit down with Italian syndicate Luna Rossa to create a protocol for the 36th America's Cup. They should also include the New York Yacht Club.

They have some fundamental issues to tackle, like how many hulls the next generation of boats will have and residency-slash-nationality clauses.

All this intrigue will feed plenty more news cycles but the biggest and best change Team NZ could help engineer is the one nobody's talking about: the shape of the competition itself.


There's a very good reason the America's Cup has yet to become the global shop window for sailing that it should be. There's a reason why it has never been able to shake the sense that it's a billionaire's playground.

It's just too damn hard to win. The odds are so heavily stacked in the defender's favour that it's a roadblock to participation.

For 132 years the damned thing didn't move at all but look at the successful challengers since: Australia II, funded by Alan Bond, the disgraced financier who was then a successful billionaire; Alinghi, funded by Swiss-Italian billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli; Oracle Team USA, who won a Deed of Gift challenge funded by software billionaire Larry Ellison.

The two exceptions to the rule are Stars and Stripes 87 and two incarnations of Team NZ, who might not have had singular billionaire backers, but were propped up by extremely wealthy operators. (Some tend to forget that the mere existence of Team NZ owes everything to Sir Michael Fay, estimated wealth $920 million.)

The rule of thumb is it's either a mug's game or a very rich man's game - the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive - to challenge for the America's Cup.

If it was a genuine open competition it would encourage more teams to enter and, frankly, would be a far more entertaining television spectacle.

The host nation entering the competition for the Cup race only is a vaguely ridiculous concept if you think about it. The country is expected to invest all this emotional energy into a campaign that in 2000 and 2003 lasted a sum total of 10 races (and in the latter event spent most of their time bailing water out of the boat). That is a gross waste of money by anybody's - except maybe billionaire's - standards.

The old challenger format is a relic of an amateur time. Wimbledon abandoned the right of the previous year's winner to advance straight to the final in 1922 and the Ranfurly Shield ceased to be the symbol of New Zealand domestic rugby superiority with the advent of the national provincial championship in 1976.


Nobody, apart from the America's Cup, does it any more because it doesn't make any sense from either a commercial or fair-play standpoint.

Coutts' halfway-house option this year was a travesty. The hard-bitten sailing legend has done far more good than harm to the regatta but having your boat sail the defender series without consequence was tilting the sea too far in the host's favour.

The winner already holds a stacked hand. They host the event at their hand-picked venue and they get to formulate the protocol with an obsequious challenger. They should not require more advantages.

Having an open regatta with, say two pools of five countries (but the more the merrier) whose seedings are based on the world series' results would be far more appealing to broadcasters and yacht clubs or individuals looking to mount a challenge. The more syndicates Team NZ attract down here, the more dollars are funnelled into the economy and the more opportunity they get to clip a few tickets and build much needed cash reserves for future defences or challenges.

Reconfiguring the event would also guarantee the best two boats race in the final. As gratifying as it was for Team NZ to take down Coutts and Spithill in Bermuda, a final against (billionaire-funded) Artemis would have been a more competitive race to beam around the world.

You don't need the host in the final to have a great event: twelve Fifa World Cup finals have been played sans hosts and you don't see broadcasters running away from that showpiece.

The Deed of Gift is the document that provides the framework for the America's Cup. It is a mercifully short piece of work that contains one of the worst sentences committed to paper - an 86-word syntax buster that begins with the word "Witnesseth" and includes "hereinafter" among its number.

The relevant passage of the Deed is as follows: "This Cup is donated upon the conditions that it shall be preserved as a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries."

That would seem to rule out the idea of an open competition but Oracle already took liberties with this notion in Bermuda by inserting themselves into the challenger series and there are other aspects of the deed that have been run roughshod over before. Just take a look at the word "friendly" above for an obvious example.

The most important historic records are living, breathing documents, shifting subtly and sometimes radically, to reflect the times. Amendments have previously been made to the Deed, by order of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, in 1956 and 1985. It can be done again.

If Team New Zealand want this incarnation of defender to leave a truly lasting legacy on the Cup and, for Grant Dalton's ego's sake, complete what Russell Coutts started but couldn't finish, then it is time to engage the New York Yacht Club and drag not just the boats, but the rules of the America's Cup kicking and screaming into the 21st century.


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