34th America’s Cup – A look back

Posted on 07 October 2013 by Valencia Sailing

Two weeks after the end of what was, admittedly, an extremely exciting and spectacular America’s Cup match we look back and assess the last three and a half years and try to guess what the future has in store. Does our opinion really matter though? Everybody seems to have one and I don’t know whether it will be taken into account by anyone in charge of running the edition that has just started. Nevertheless, here’s what we think was extraordinarily good, mediocre and bad in the 34th America’s Cup. Hopefully, we will not see another self-proclaimed guru or genius that will try to reinvent the wheel but instead, the lessons learned will be used as a stepping stone to an even better race.

The AC72’s are truly spectacular boats that provide close and exciting racing
I guess it is called the pain of being wrong. I was one of the many that argued since 2010 that a match race on AC72’s would be one of the most boring and least interesting sailing races ever. The month of September 2013 proved the exact opposite, as long as the two teams and boats are equally matched. Not only were the two AC72’s boats going at 40 knots of speed, there were lead changes, crossings, plenty of close action and, guess what, sailing skills and tactics did play an important role. These boats are out of reach to all but a few, just four to be exact, but the America’s Cup being the pinnacle event of the sport of sailing, it should push the technological boundaries. If there are four billionaires that want to take the risk and advance let them do it.

Even though no “mortal” sailor will ever step on any of these boats, they are indeed a huge step forward. I can’t see a way back and it is almost certain that a smaller, simpler version of them will be used next time. Having said that, the much-promised disappearance of the postponement flag proved to be pipe dream. The upper wind limits, imposed by safety regulations, and the lower wind limits, indirectly imposed by the ridiculously short race limit of 40 minutes, meant that the AC72’s could actually hold a valid race within the very narrow range of 10 to 20 knots. So much for the famous “3 to 33 knots” promised by Russell Coutts.

Hopefully, the next iteration of these boats will be able to race in more than 20 knots and someone will take a calculator, do some simple math and figure out what a sensible time limit should be in order to have a race in less than 10 knots.

TV coverage of the America’s Cup took a quantum leap into the 21st century
If a Sports TV production Oscar existed it should undoubtedly be awarded to Stan Honey and the America’s Cup TV production crew. Their work has been stunning and the progress achieved in making sailing understandable is unquestionable, thanks to the marvels of LiveLine. It started with the boundary, start, finish and 100-meter lines two years ago and in San Francisco it reached perfection with the tide and dirty air graphics. When once or twice the helicopters couldn’t take off due to the weather and we were deprived from Honey’s graphics I was wondering how we were able to watch sailing on TV before that.

The advances in technology from now to 2017 will certainly make it easier and cheaper to achieve the same results, even if the costs were staggering for any event not backed by a billionaire. However, there are some aspects of that technology that can be easily integrated in most sailing events at a much lower cost. The 2-centimeter accuracy of the onboard GPS by itself is an enormous advance and could give umpires a nearly-faultless tool even in simpler match races.

San Francisco is an excellent venue to hold the America’s Cup
With a couple of exceptions San Francisco provided superb wind and weather conditions and the handful of occasions where racing was cancelled or postponed were due to the artificial limits. We will not repeat what we stated above but it is indeed incomprehensible for a non-sailor to see a race cancelled while the boats were sailing at 15 knots… San Francisco also provides for a stunning backdrop and if one’s aim is to have sailing as close as possible to the shore of a major metropolis, there aren’t many places in the world that could compete.

Is foiling the way of the future? Loïck Peyron foiling on his Moth. Alameda, February 2013. Photo copyright Sander van der Borch / Artemis Racing

Does Larry Ellison really want an America’s Cup with many challengers?
Despite Larry Ellison’s own statements as back as February 2010 and Russell Coutts’ frequent claims, the 34th America’s Cup wasn’t conceived and implemented in order to attract a great number of competing teams. We will not go once again into the details of the high costs, enormous complexity and mind-boggling logistical needs of the AC72 boats, these aspects have been exhaustively covered by this and many other sailing and mainstream media. If Ellison truly wanted to have 12 challengers and 3 defenders, he could have easily done it in the three and a half years since his victory in Valencia in February 2010. The end result was that only three challengers were able to afford the necessary costs to mount a credible challenge and one of them, Artemis Racing, had no interest whatsoever in the commercial and media return of the event since they were entirely privately funded.

Having just two challengers with serious commercial interests makes it much easier for any defender, in general, and Larry Ellison in particular. His only goal was and is to retain the America’s Cup, not to organize a challenger selection series with 12 teams, avoiding a great deal of headaches that come with that. The less, the merrier. We can’t see why it will be different this time.

The question is of course whether it really matters if there are 2 or 12 challengers. The America’s Cup was never meant to be a “big” TP52 circuit. Each one has its own place in the sport of sailing and the America’s Cup isn’t meant to be for everybody, even if they can afford it! Take for example Niklas Zennström, the founder of Skype. He’s an avid sailor, his fortune could eventually allow him to fund a Cup campaign and he spends a lot of money in his TP52 and Mini-Maxi 72 campaigns, nearly 7 million euros per year! Yet he’s not interested in the America’s Cup because he wants to helm his boat, not write checks and watch her from the dock. Other, equally wealthy businessmen, prefer to race in the RC44 class.

Bob and Sandy Oatley, the father and son billionaires from Australia and Challenger of Record, stated a couple of days ago they would like to see a significant reduction in costs so that more teams can enter but then again it’s up to Larry Ellison to decide the future. Vincenzo Onorato, Challenger of Record for the 34th America’s Cup, agreed with Ellison’s protocol because he thought Ellison would also fund his campaign. When he saw that he wouldn’t get a single euro from the American billionaire he withdrew since he was unable to find the necessary funding for Mascalzone Latino. This shows that the Challenger of Record doesn’t have a say in shaping the event and Larry Ellison doesn’t seem to bother if the challenger he chose withdraws…

However, one thing that Larry Ellison’s organization should refrain from doing again this time is to embark on a PR campaign preaching their desire to have “multiple” challengers while at the same time doing everything possible in order not to have more than a handful.

Thanks to their nearly-unlimited budget Oracle Team USA managed to successufly overcome such an important hurdle as the capsize of their first boat. San Francisco, 16 October 2012. Photo copyright Guilain Grenier / Oracle Team USA

If you are rich you will not necessarily win the America’s Cup, if you aren’t you never will
I think the 34th America’s Cup was a clear proof of the statement since we had both cases. Artemis Racing, said to have a budget of nearly 100 million euros, started well in advance and didn’t spare any effort. They hired some of the world’s best sailors, one of the world’s most accomplished yacht designers, they had enviable human and financial resources and yet they tragically failed in their attempt to win the Cup.

On the other hand Emirates Team New Zealand is, in my opinion, the demonstration that no matter how smart you are, and they proved they were when they foiled with their AC72, now matter how good you are, you will be outgunned by someone as smart as you but much richer. Our “resident expert” was claiming already in July that Dean Barker wouldn’t lift the Cup in San Francisco, not because he isn’t a talented sailor but because Oracle Team has more money.

Emirates Team New Zealand didn’t have the necessary funds to run a proper two-boat campaign and engage in serious in-house two-boat testing and training. As a result, they had to show their cards much earlier than they would have optimally done. A team that has to cannibalize the winches from the first boat and reuse them in the second one, cannot win the America’s Cup. With the AC72’s they were always one capsize away from tragically ending their campaign and they had to taste the heart-breaking feeling of nearly being there when Aotearoa was one degree from flipping over. They were no match for Luna Rossa and Artemis Racing but that wasn’t enough to take the Cup from Larry Ellison.

We will probably never know the truth behind Oracle Team USA’s miraculous comeback from the abyss. We will probably never know what happened inside their immense shed on Pier 80 when in 48 hours they turned the tables. Did they really install “Little Herbie”, the alleged Stability Augmentation Systems (SAS) from Boeing? Did they modify the boat to the extent it is rumored? Did Ben Ainslie turned the team upside down? We will never know. However, one thing is for sure, it wouldn’t have been possible without Larry Ellison’s millions. Neither the recovery from the initial capsize in October of 2012 would have been possible if Oracle Team didn’t have access to an unlimited budget.

Larry Ellison could afford to have two-three complete teams with two of the world’s best helmsmen, Ben Ainslie and Jimmy Spithill, and had an army of designers and boat builders. Grant Dalton couldn’t afford to do that because he didn’t have enough money. He’s not to blame of course, he could have done much more with an additional 50 million dollars…

Sailing will always be a tough sport to sell
We truly hope that whoever gets to run the 35th America’s Cup, realizes that it will be impossible to sell sailing as easily as soccer, football or the Formula 1. We might not like that fact but we have to live with it. The next CEO of America’s Cup Event Authority, or whatever it might be called, should learn from the hard lessons from 2010 to 2013.

Cities can no longer afford and will never pay hosting city fees of 5 million euros for a one-week America’s Cup World Series event. The times of exorbitant fees are long gone by and will not return, at least in the near future. In addition, if a city signs to hold a regatta, they will never want it to be a one-off event. They need continuity so that they can sell and market that event themselves. Nearly a month ago, Harvey Schiller, vice chairman of America’s Cup 2013 advisory board, made a presentation in New York (see video above) where he outlined Larry Ellison’s idea to create a World League of Racing. This is a beautiful idea and vision but I am curious to see how they will make it more successful than the America’s Cup World Series (ACWS). Despite the ACWS being successful sports-wise, they failed to help participating teams attract any sponsorship to go ahead, with the exception of the four ones that already had secured funding. We will be watching that development with close interest.

The fact that ACEA failed to sign up any big-name sponsor is also telling. This was also evident in the fact that none of the teams, with the exception of Emirates Team New Zealand, couldn’t have existed without a billionaire backing them. Sailing is an extremely tough sport to sell. Take one of the world’s most successful corporate groups, Samsung. The Korean electronics giant earned, approximately, US$100 million per DAY in the most recent financial quarter. It could easily afford to fund 10 America’s Cup teams as well as the entire event. However, it doesn’t. Why? If I knew the answer I wouldn’t be writing this website, I would be in Seoul, selling that sponsorship for a commission. However, it is an undeniable fact that without Larry Ellison’t money, much of what we have seen from 2010 until last month wouldn’t have existed. It isn’t criticism, it’s a fact.

The same erroneous attitude also had a negative impact on TV rights and the most striking example was Italy. France’s Canal+ paid 1 million euros for the live broadcast rights for the Louis Vuitton Cup and the America’s Cup. According to Italian sources familiar with the issue, ACEA was willing to give RAI the same rights in Italy, at the same price. Following the, undeniably, hugely successful ACWS event in April 2013 in Naples, Luna Rossa was riding a wave of popularity, Italians liked the event and were starting to get a keen interest in the new America’s Cup and as a result the state-owned Italian TV was eager to sign. Seeing that interest, ACEA, according to the same sources, started to act arrogantly, let negotiations drag and at some point doubled the asking price to 2 million euros. RAI didn’t accept and thus the 34th America’s Cup wasn’t broadcast in Italy, one of the just three countries to have a challenger…

3 Comments For This Post

  1. Sven Gustaf Says:

    Why do the Kiwis insist that they could not afford a good boat?

    Am I supposed to believe that their designer/designed the winning boat but New Zealanders could not afford to build it?

    Seriously you’re saying you could have won if your original design had been built but since you couldn’t afford the winning boat design you decided to build the cheap boat.

  2. Dave Y. Kialoa Says:

    An avid follower of the AC ever since DC won the cup back in 1987 in Fremantle. Of all the cup finals since, clearly the two Deed of Gift matches in 1988 and 2011 generated the least interest. As well all recall, one of the most gripping races of all times was the 7th race in 2007 between Alinghi and ETNZ. It’s available on Youtube, all three hours of it. I love monohulls, I sail one, but to all the monohull traditionalists, I dare you to sit through that entire race after watching the action and suspense that AC 34 gave us, not to speak of the quality of the coverage.

    Thank you, ETNZ for bringing the game to this level and for pushing Oracle to the brink!

    So forget DOG, and forget monohulls (for the AC), the AC has come into the 21st century. An average sailor like me can no more sail an AC 72 than I could drive an F1 car. And that’s good, it should be at the cutting edge, limited to the most talented few.

    But more teams are needed. The AC final has historically not been as competitive as we may recall from this year or from 2007 in Valencia. Look at the score lines, 1987: 4-0, 1988: 2-0, 1992: 4-1, 1995: 5-0, 2000: 5-0, 2003: 5-0. More teams would be better to see some great sailing action in the challenger series, and to lift the level and interest of the entire event. It also provides more opportunities for the best sailors of different countries, provides more stories and media interest. Maybe not 10-12 teams, already 6-8 could be sufficient. 2-4 teams is too few.

    Billionaires are a dime a dozen these days, hopefully the action of AC 34 will motivate a few to jump in, if Larry does not scare them off.

  3. Dave Y. Kialoa Says:

    An avid follower of the AC ever since DC won the cup back in 1987 in Fremantle. Of all the cup finals since, clearly the two Deed of Gift matches in 1988 and 2011 generated the least interest. As well all recall, one of the most gripping races of all times was the 7th race in 2007 between Alinghi and ETNZ. It’s available on Youtube, all three hours of it. I love monohulls, I sail one, but to all the monohull traditionalists, I dare you to sit through that entire race after watching the action and suspense that AC 34 gave us, not to speak of the quality of the coverage. Thank you, ETNZ for bringing the game to this level and for pushing Oracle to the brink!

    So forget DOG, and forget monohulls (for the AC), the AC has come into the 21st century. An average sailor like me can no more sail an AC 72 than I could drive an F1 car. And that’s good, it should be at the cutting edge, limited to the most talented few.

    But more teams are needed. The AC final has historically not been as competitive as we may recall from this year or from 2007 in Valencia. Look at the score lines, 1987: 4-0, 1988: 2-0, 1992: 4-1, 1995: 5-0, 2000: 5-0, 2003: 5-0. More teams would be better to see some great sailing action in the challenger series, and to lift the level and interest of the entire event. It also provides more opportunities for the best sailors of different countries, provides more stories and media interest. Maybe not 10-12 teams, already 6-8 could be sufficient. 2-4 teams is too few.

    Billionaires are a dime a dozen these days, hopefully the action of AC 34 will motivate a few to jump in, if Larry does not scare them off.

 

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