“Sports that don’t make money are just hobbies for rich guys.” So says Larry Ellison, and is there anyone more qualified to make that comment? Having won the America’s Cup twice, not least by being one of those rich guys, Larry and his cohort Russell Coutts continue in their quest to make the Cup commercially viable. “We want to create a 21st century sports business that will support sailing professionals and their families,” says the Oracle tycoon.
In a recent interview with the San Diego-based sailing news service, Scuttlebutt, Russell Coutts was even more explicit about where his priorities lie. “A lot of decisions about the competition are dictated by the commercial side. When you talk to the broadcasters, it is really tough for them to accommodate a long schedule,” is one example that illustrates the five-times winner’s intent to make the Cup dance to the tune of the television companies.
But isn’t trying to woo the TV companies a bit old hat? Traditional television broadcasting and its advertising clout continues to fall into decline as our attention is increasingly dragged away by what we’re seeing on our smart phones and ipads. Rather than rejecting its elitist roots, perhaps the Cup should continue to embrace what it has always been good at - grabbing the attention of some of the wealthiest and most influential people - rather than trying to chase the mass market appeal of other more commercially successful sports. Instead of broadcasting to millions of the semi-interested or in most cases, totally uninterested, why not narrowcast to the thousands of genuinely interested - and in many cases, extremely wealthy - enthusiasts?
Well, for one thing, a more niche event wouldn’t be able to sustain the kind of investment that led to the 34th America’s Cup recently being nominated for five Emmy Awards. Stan Honey and his team elevated sailing coverage to a new level, as anyone who watched the finals last September would know. Those technological leaps forward came courtesy of a massive cash injection from Ellison, an investment running into hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s quite understandable that he doesn’t want to continue stumping up that kind of cash, so now the trick - if you believe it is worth pursuing - is to make the Cup work commercially. This has been the Holy Grail for holders of the Cup for the past 30 years or more, and I fear that Ellison and Coutts are no closer to finding it.
Meanwhile, the interminable waiting game drags on for the Protocol to be announced. Eight months on, and we have yet to know any of the details, as Russell Coutts and the city of San Francisco wait to see who blinks first. San Diego is currently being talked up as a viable alternative but - beautiful city though it may be - it doesn’t hold a candle to its more northerly Californian cousin for being able to guarantee strong wind or a natural amphitheatre for spectators. The city of San Francisco knows this too, and second time round is playing much harder to get.
One man who might be happy to see this continued hold-up in proceedings is Dirk de Ridder, the disgraced wing trimmer from Oracle Team USA who has been suspended from sanctioned events for five years by the International Sailing Federation. Aged 41, and currently unable to take up on lucrative offers to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race which starts later this year, the Dutchman has received much harsher penalties than others implicated in the AC45 tampering scandal. Russell Coutts and former ISAF president Paul Henderson have weighed in with their views, Henderson saying that de Ridder’s case should be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
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