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Tragedy, politics, controversy and farce - now can the America’s Cup get back on course?

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21 August 2013 | America's Cup,Feature,Comment

Tragedy, politics, controversy and farce - now can the America’s Cup get back on course?

The final of the Louis Vuitton Cup, currently underway on San Francisco Bay, marks the beginning of the end of the 34th America's Cup. The battle for the Cup itself will follow in early September but a saga filled with tragedy, the usual politics, controversy and sometimes even a touch of farce is now reaching what organisers will desperately hope is a dramatic conclusion.

Emirates Team New Zealand hold a narrow 2-1 lead over Prada-owned Luna Rossa Challenge in the Louis Vuitton-sponsored challenger selection series final, with the next races scheduled for Wednesday, and although the early stages of the best of 13 contest were marked by the unreliability of the high-technology AC72 boats chosen for this edition of the Cup and a series of wind-related race postponements, it says much about what has transpired over recent months and weeks that they were considered mere trifling issues.

To say it has been a difficult period for sailing's most famous event, the pinnacle of the sport as far as a casual observer is concerned, would be an understatement. It is, assuredly, not the competition Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison (below) envisaged when he won the Cup in 2011, also winning, as per the historic rules which govern and restrict the competition, the right to organise the next event and shape it as he saw fit.

Ellison soon set about putting his stamp on a competition that has a storied past but remained in dire need of a commercial overhaul. He decided the America’s Cup would be raced in giant AC72 catamarans - complete with sails taller than a jumbo jet is long - to inject the contest with a new, spectacular, high-octane edge. It became clear, however, that the cost of constructing an AC72-specification contender was prohibitive; the number of challengers dwindled to just three.

It became clear that the cost of constructing an AC72-specification contender was prohibitive; the number of challengers dwindled to just three.

The Swedish entry, funded by billionaire Torbjorn Tornqvist, was quickly eliminated from the Louis Vuitton Cup despite a huge emotional and financial effort to get back on the water, following the capsize which killed British Olympic sailor Andrew Simpson in May. It left Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa Challenge, two perennial Cup challengers, battling to face Ellison’s Oracle Team USA in the final match, scheduled to start on 7th September.

The tragic accident which befell Simpson and his Artemis team was a huge blow for an America’s Cup community which has spent the past two years-plus on the US west coast preparing for this summer.

That it followed an earlier capsize by Oracle Team USA during a training exercise only served to raise concerns about the safety of the new breed of boats, which race at higher speeds than any America's Cup yachts before them. Crews now must wear body-armour, one of 37 safety recommendations made and enacted in the aftermath of Simpson's death, but even those changes weren't without controversy. There was fierce criticism from Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa and suggestions that the defender was attempting to push through advantageous amendments to the technical rules on the eve of the competition. It was the kind of technical and political brouhaha the America's Cup is famous for but, coming amidst the other problems afflicting the event, was the last thing organisers needed.

The protests and understandable delays to Artemis' preparations led to farcical scenes on the water in the early stages of the challenger series; with no competitor available, several times a single team effectively raced itself. Sir Keith Mills, the British entrepreneur who launched a British challenger for the Cup in the aftermath of the successful 32nd Cup in 2007 only to close it down amidst frustration at the new set of Ellison-inspired rules, was moved to describe the situation as "pretty grotesque", adding: "I don't think it's even a sport now. How can you have a sport with one competitor? If Tottenham Hotspur turned out on the pitch with no other team to play, it would be a joke and it is a joke and that's a shame".

Amidst the many negatives, however, there have been positives. An investment of up to US$100 million in broadcast technology, including on-board cameras, audio and explanatory live graphics, has revolutionised the way the sport can be watched, potentially providing a model for sailing as a whole. The new Youth America’s Cup, complete with backing from Red Bull, is full of potential. And Ellison's vision for a greater narrative, to sustain the Cup during the long periods between editions, certainly has merit. 

The America's Cup World Series, launched in 2011, remains a work in progress but its format, a Grand Prix-style series of events around the world, may be the catalyst for a brighter future. Whether the World Series can be successfully untangled from the binding nature of the Cup – the premise that the winner organises the next event and can completely change the rules, location, type of boat and format should it so wish is a fundamental of the event - remains to be seen, but The Sports Consultancy's co-managing director Angus Buchanan, who specialises in sailing, is hopeful.

"This, because of the way it was generated to begin with, was a single event and it had its time, but it needs to be reformatted."

"There are clear positives from what they've done in San Francisco," he said. "It's to be hoped some of the positives will be capitalised on, no matter who is taking the Cup forward. There are some clear game-changers with this America's Cup, be it the media coverage, technological values they've brought, the shorter, sharper format. It's been pretty spectacular in that respect."

Sports industry veteran Harvey Schiller predicts that the future of the World Series is franchise-based. Schiller, who has been the vice chair of the America's Cup 2013 Advisory Board, told SportsPro: "The whole idea is to have events that will occur and what we're looking at is getting a league. The league would have franchises and the franchises would compete on a global basis. The league would be much like a single-entity league like Major League Soccer, in that you could have owners owning more than one franchise.

"This, because of the way it was generated to begin with, was a single event and it had its time, but it needs to be reformatted."

For whoever prevails on San Francisco Bay in the next few weeks, be it Ellison or his challengers from New Zealand or Italy, there is much to ponder as the America’s Cup continues its uneasy transition from elite amateur contest to commercially driven, modern sports property.

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