Are the bells tolling for the America’s Cup?

Skiffie May 12, 2015 0

As sporting events go, the America’s Cup is pretty much unparalleled in terms of longevity. Since the first race around the Isle of Wight in 1851 where the schooner America won the 100 Guinea Cup, just four nations claim to have held what is now known as the America’s Cup – USA, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland. By and large since the 1970s, the “modern” Cup events have been held in a fairly well worn path – at the end of the event, a yacht club makes a formal challenge and becomes Challenger of Record; protocols including the class of yacht are agreed to, the defence venue and dates; a Challenger Series is held and a Challenger decided; the Defence may (or may not) hold a Defender Selection Series roughly in parallel with the Challenger Series; and the Cup itself is raced for; rinse, and repeat on a four year cycle. There are of course anomalies – the infamous Mercury Bay Challenge in 1988 after Conner wrested the Cup back from the Big Fella in Fremantle; and the equally infamous “2010 DoG” match, using enormous multihulls.

Alinghi’s A5 leading BMW Oracle Racing’s USA-17 early on the windward leg, Race 1 AC33. Photo:©2010 Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle Racing via CupInfo.com

So while there may not be a Green and Gold team challenging for the 35th America’s Cup, there are plenty of Aussie sailors throughout the teams who have committed to have a crack, so we still love to keep our eyes on the prize. However it’s disheartening to see where things have ended up some since the successful defence concluded on September 25, 2013, and the Protocol was eventually signed on June 2, 2014 between the Golden Gate Yacht Club and the Hamilton Island Yacht Club. In a major turnaround, and perhaps a harbinger of what has eventuated, HIYC resigned as COR a matter of weeks later, basically citing that the anticipated costs were exceeding the budget.

Protracted Timeline

Skippers all smiles in Sept 2014 – Image:©2014 ACEA/Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget.

Our friends over at CupInfo.com have a detailed timeline that I’ve based my observations on. I actually spoke with the Editor there, as I had a few queries on the table and what I saw as other significant events (it was originally mainly a schedule around Protocol and Race dates). In our emails back and forth, it became evident it was pretty difficult to have the sort of items I was after, as the information coming out of ACEA was pretty vague. It’s even hard to track on the official America’s Cup website “News” section any sort of timeline of team announcements (either in our out). The table is since updated (at time of writing, updated 14 April, 2015), and now shows a few key dates such as announcement of challenger venues and dates has slipped (some by up to two months). However while there are numerous planned dates published, the actual release dates of some of the information is vague or, at least, not announced. It begs the question, what’s to hide?

When the announcement of the 2017 AC venue was made on 2 December 2014, the ACEA press release specifically mentions “new AC62 catamarans”, the rules for which were announced on 5 June 2014. The Kiwis, Luna Rossa and BAR all announced challenges officially around this time. The first hint of any changes were made on 25 March 2015, and highlighted then that not all teams were behind the move to smaller boats. The final announcement was made, ironically, on April Fool’s Day. Since Team Australia withdrew, no single team took the mantle of being COR, which left the unenviable position of the Defender and all of the Challengers having to collectively agree to changes. This has seen the withdrawal of Luna Rossa (primarily it would seem over the change to the rule) and Team New Zealand challenging the loss of Auckland as being a host city for AC Qualifiers.

Sponsor’s Nightmare

Is it any wonder that with such apparent dis-organisation and resulting failure to meet their own deadlines, that Bob Fisher wrote this open letter to ACEA slamming the changes to the event. I have to agree wholeheartedly with Bob in this instance, in fact his point where what prompted me to write this blog piece.

My day job is for a construction company, and on top of that I also work in the “new business” space, so I understand a few things that clients / sponsors are looking for in the product they are paying for. Both are looking for a product that performs and delivers a positive outcome, without having to keep dipping in to the coffers to see the project through to the end. In construction, the product is the client’s project, delivered on or before time, and on or under budget. In the America’s Cup, a sponsor is buying into the success of a team on the race course and off. However, with little clarity over exactly what the rules of the boats, continual delays, and the ultimate make-up of lead in series to the big event, I can understand that many potential sponsors or even teams might be nervous about making  the hefty investment into an unknown product. Would you approach a builder and say “build me a house, go ahead, make it whatever you want as I’m sure I’ll like it”?

Oracle – Team USA after winning Race 19 (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) — AP

For teams owned by billionaires, this is less of a problem – their passion for the sport in general see them able to splash their company’s logo over the boats, have naming rights over the team, and generally pull along supporting sponsors for equipment, etc. Others have to have multiple major and minor sponsors to make ends meet, and this is where I see the difficulty in the event staying alive should the tinkering of the event continue. There is not and endless supply of billionaire sailors willing to participate in the Cup. Without medium to large or very large companies willing to throw sponsor dollars at a team, the America’s Cup is quite likely to become a non-event.

I’m reminded of the business acumen “fail, and fail fast”, meaning if you want to try a new idea, give it a good crack but don’t try to “polish the turd” if the idea is no good. Bin it, move on and improve. ACEA, and in some part the Challenging Teams as well, are not failing fast from what I can see. The move from AC72 to AC62 was sound, but maybe wasn’t bold enough – if the agreement was made to go AC45-ish from the offset, might we have seen even more teams involved from earlier stages, and even the COR Team Australia still participating? Those rhetorical questions and many more will never be answered, however I hope in my heart of hearts, that the event does not die a slow and agonising death. Organisers need to quit mucking about, start meeting their deadlines and organise a regatta worthy of this prestigious trophy. Then, and only then, will the Fat Lady step up and cut the bell rope, rather than ring it.

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