Bermuda shorts, or fish tacos and margaritas?
What will the flavor of the next America’s Cup be?
One year after one of the biggest comebacks in sports, regatta officials are still sorting out details for the 2017 regatta. They haven’t picked a venue, although it’ll be either Bermuda or San Diego. They’ve yet to announce a major sponsor or TV deal, or the schedule for warmup regattas for the next two years.
Many in sailing feel the America’s Cup has frittered away all the momentum it gained in the mainstream sports world when the once-stodgy sport zoomed fully into the 21st century on space-age catamarans that skimmed across San Francisco Bay on hydrofoils in September 2013. Oracle Team USA rallied to win eight straight races to stun Emirates Team New Zealand and keep the Auld Mug in the United States.
So what does America’s Cup czar Russell Coutts say to the critics?
“You’re wrong,” Coutts said during a recent visit to San Diego to meet with government officials and potential sponsors.
Coutts was then headed to Los Angeles to meet with television executives as he continues to try to sell his vision of stadium sailing that’s accessible to TV viewers as well as spectators lining the shore.
A five-time America’s Cup winner, Coutts said he wouldn’t get in the door at any network if it hadn’t been for Oracle’s thrilling comeback led by skipper Jimmy Spithill.
“No way,” Coutts said. “I think the television product really stood out and is giving us an opportunity. The networks are definitely interested in picking up the property. That of course spins off to all the other commercial aspects around the event.”
NBC broadcast the opening weekend of the last America’s Cup, watched by nearly 1 million U.S. households on each of the first two days. But once the racing shifted to NBC Sports Network, viewership plunged. The clinching race was watched by 189,000 households.
Oracle Team USA owner Larry Ellison, one of the of the richest men in the world, apparently has gotten tired of plopping down $100 million here and $100 million there to pay the costs of not only defending the silver trophy, but staging the overall event.
Ellison has charged Coutts with coming up with a way to make the America’s Cup pay for itself. It’s expensive for participants and organizers alike.
Coutts took a first step by pulling the event from San Francisco, where, he said, it would cost some $38 million to stage the next regatta. The New Zealander was unhappy that San Francisco was unwilling to give cup organizers the same terms as last time, which included free use of piers and city services.
So, one year after the Oracle crew sprayed Ellison with champagne on Sept. 25, 2013, the America’s Cup is struggling to convert the momentum into future value.
Coutts said he is talking with potential major backers. While he won’t name them, he hinted that they inc
lude former sponsors. They might include BMW, a former sponsor of Oracle’s racing team, and Louis Vuitton, the long-time sponsor of the challenger elimination series. Louis Vuitton is believed to have paid $30 million last time, and was believed to be unhappy with several aspects of the event.
San Diego and Bermuda are the finalists in a far-flung venue search. Only five challengers have signed up, and they need to know where the racing will be in order to firm up their own sponsorships.
While the decision is Coutts’ to make, it’s known that the challengers overwhelmingly favor San Diego.
A decision could still be two months away.
“I believe you can’t do it any faster than this,” Coutts said, citing the time needed to deal with government entities.
San Diego knows how to put on the America’s Cup, having hosted it in 1988, 1992 and 1995, and in a budget-conscious way. The ’95 Cup made an estimated $400,000, which went to fund junior sailing programs.
Coutts took the America’s Cup from San Diego in 1995, skippering Team New Zealand to a five-race sweep of Dennis Conner.
Bermuda is closer to New York and London, and in a better time zone for European TV. Still, Coutts will be criticized by traditionalists if he goes offshore with an American defense of the America’s Cup. Bermuda is a British territory.
Coutts and Spithill point out that unlike on San Francisco Bay, spectators will be able to see the entire race course on San Diego Bay or on Bermuda’s Great Sound.
“It would be good here, wouldn’t it?” Coutts said to Spithill.
“It would be awesome,” said Spithill. “It’s got the best racetrack. The beauty of both the venues is you can see the entire racetrack. You didn’t get that in San Fran.”