Sometimes the America’s Cup can’t get out of its own way. A case in point is the recent decision by Team Australia to pull out of the Cup just weeks after having completed painful Protocol negotiations with Team Oracle USA. How can you decide that the Cup’s not for you when you’ve spent the previous six months arguing for what you want? This is the third consecutive occasion that the Challenger of Record has become a lame duck. Well, a disappearing duck!
I had expected better of the challenge by Bob and Sandy Oatley and Hamilton Island Yacht Club. It’s hard to understand what they know now, that they didn’t already know when they submitted their challenge bid on the day of Oracle’s victory last September in San Francisco.
Here’s an excerpt from the briefest of public statements from the now defunct team. “The challenge was initiated with a view to negotiating a format for the 35th America's Cup that was affordable and put the emphasis back on sailing skills," said Bob Oatley, the phenomenally successful wine magnate and multiple winner of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. “Ultimately, our estimate of the costs of competing were well beyond our initial expectation and our ability to make the formula of our investment and other commercial support add up.”
What should be obvious to anyone by now is that commercial support in the America’s Cup is only the icing on the cake. All serious Cup teams, with the unique exception of Emirates Team New Zealand and its partial backing by the New Zealand government, are funded primarily and almost entirely by private patronage. Even the spectacle of that breathtaking finale in San Francisco last year appears to have done little to alter this harsh reality.
Undeterred by historical precedent, however, Russell Coutts is pushing hard to turn the Cup into a commercial entity. At least that is what he says, although for the challenger teams the venue selection process has left them baffled at how San Francisco has been rejected from the short list, with only San Diego and Bermuda left in the running. San Diego could be OK-ish, a sort of San Francisco Lite, a waterered-down, vanilla version of the heady cocktail we witnessed last September.
As for the tax haven of Bermuda, 650 miles off the shore of mainland USA? Let’s try to be positive for a moment. Bringing such a big event to a small place certainly has its benefits, because you can be sure that the already sailing-mad Bermudan community will get right behind the Cup in a way that could never be achieved in San Diego or San Francisco. But Bermuda for taking the Cup into the commercial stratosphere? It was questions like these that prompted an unscheduled meeting in Los Angeles between representatives of Oracle and the potential challengers. We are told the meeting went well, although one gets the sense that everyone is watching their language to maintain an entente cordiale during a fragile moment in negotiations.
The Australians were at the table in Los Angeles, giving no sense of their impending withdrawal, according to Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena. So who will be left by the entry deadline of 8 August? Who will put down $1 million for the right to show up on the start line in 2017? Currently the serious players look to be Sweden, Italy, New Zealand and Great Britain. If all four enter and stay the course through to 2017, that would be an improvement on the 2013 Cup.
Much of the momentum from last year’s Cup is now lost, but the good things that came out of 2013 are the amazing TV coverage and putting hydrofoiling on the map. All around the world, sailors are immersing themselves in foiling projects, from the 11ft International Moths whose World Championship took place during a Mediterranean week at Hayling Island, to the GC32 foiling catamarans such as Richard Mille which took line honours victory at the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race. The 2013 Cup has brought the sometimes staid world of sailing into the 21st century. If nothing else, that is a legacy worth celebrating.
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