Team Oracle USA’s dramatic comeback from 8-1 down to defeat Emirates Team New Zealand in Wednesday’s winner-takes-all finale was the perfect end to what was, all things considered, an imperfect edition of the America’s Cup.
Aside from the standard arm-wrestles over the rules, the 34th Cup will be remembered for Oracle owner Larry Ellison’s new vision for sailing’s premier event as an action-packed, extreme joust, and the safety and financial concerns which resulted from his choice of the AC72 catamaran. The death of Artemis sailor Andrew Simpson, arguments over the safety changes that followed and a dwindling number of challengers - only three made it as far as the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger selection series - made for a stressful start to what the San Francisco organisers had dubbed the ‘summer of sailing’. When Team Oracle USA was found to have broken technical regulations, incurring a two-point deficit in the Cup finals, and New Zealand surged into a dominant lead, it looked as though Ellison’s dream had become the dampest of damp squibs.
Fortunately for the often-reclusive billionaire and sailing fanatic, a Cup that had at times threatened to spiral out of control will now also be recalled as a classic sporting battle - certainly, it will make the list of both the greatest comebacks and collapses in sporting history.
In the afterglow of such a sensational ending, attention has already turned to what Ellison and his Oracle Team USA chief executive Russell Coutts might do next. America’s Cup predictions are notoriously tricky, given the way the competition can be moulded to the defender’s vision, but the 34th Cup has left seeds of clear potential in amongst the several missteps.
Although there has so far been no confirmation, San Francisco is surely a shoo-in to host the 35th Cup regatta. The all-new close-to-the-shore course, with Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge providing a suitably dramatic backdrop, was a stunning venue. It will surely be retained.
The television coverage, brilliantly effective at conveying the intricacies of the sport, must also be kept at the levels of the 34th edition, however costly. New graphics, a multitude of camera angles, on-board audio and informative commentary, all provided in-house by the America’s Cup Event Authority, made sailing a viable TV product for the first time.
For all the style, substance will be the determining factor in whether the 35th Cup is a success.
For all the style, however, substance will be the determining factor in whether the 35th Cup is a success. Much will depend on the route Ellison, Coutts and co. elect to take with the boat design, an always-controversial topic in America’s Cup circles. The AC72s were magnificently spectacular beasts, but proved prohibitively costly for several potential challengers. The safety risks, starkly exposed in May when Simpson died following the Artemis capsize, will also no doubt be taken into account, as will the effectiveness of the raft of new regulations which resulted. A switch to the AC45s used in the fledgling America’s Cup World Series (ACWS) appears the most sensible course of action, lowering as it will the financial barrier to entry whilst retaining the competitive element, if not the out-and-out spectacle of the 72s. That may be a bitter pill for Ellison to swallow - the 72s were his vision of a new extreme, and ultimately viewer-friendly, America’s Cup - but it will almost certainly result in a greater fleet of challengers and a better overall product.
In terms of who those challengers might be, early speculation emanating from San Francisco has suggested the next challenger of record - the competitor which will represent all the challengers in discussions on the shape of the 35th Cup with Oracle’s sanctioning yacht club, the Golden Gate Yacht Club - may come from Australia in what would be a welcome first challenge since 2000 from the country.
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The future of Emirates Team New Zealand, a team part-funded by the government, is, however, in significant doubt. Reportedly outspent by Team Oracle, despite an outlay of up to US$100 million according to managing director Grant Dalton, in this cycle, the money well appears to have run dry for now. There is no confirmation that the Prada-backed Luna Rossa Challenge team will return, either, nor has there been any formal pronouncement thus far from Swedish challenger Artemis. Both, however, could well be back.
The field may, though, be rather different by the time the next Cup is staged - another difficulty with the historic format of the event is there is, currently, no date in the diary - although a British challenge built around Sir Ben Ainslie seems more than possible, if budgets are reined in. Ben Ainslie Racing already exists in shell form, backed by JP Morgan, but additional funding is likely to emerge given the way Olympic champion Ainslie’s late role as a tactician for Team Oracle captured the attention in Great Britain during the US team’s comeback. Sir Keith Mills, the British entrepreneur who founded and then closed Team Origin, a one-time America’s Cup challenger, is a potential backer, perhaps in similar fashion to the way he funds Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss-sponsored Open 60 ocean racing team.
There is no doubt that an Ainslie entry would be one of the great storylines of the Cup, especially given he would find himself challenging the team he helped to retain the Auld Mug this time round. If personalities can help make a sport, then the likes of Ainslie, Oracle’s Jamies Spithill and the defeated New Zealand helmsman Dean Barker have the ability to form the type of longstanding rivalries to capture the public’s attention, starting in the next cycle.
As Ellison and Coutts set to work on the template for sailing’s most high-profile contest, maintaining the momentum of the last week is a must.
Predicting the direction from which other challengers might emerge is less clear. From the east, there is always the potential of another attempt from one or both of China and Korea, although these have proved less-than-successful and poorly funded in recent years. A Middle East challenger is a possibility, too, perhaps from either Oman or Abu Dhabi - both are heavy investors in sailing, through the wide-ranging Oman Sail programme and Abu Dhabi’s Volvo Ocean Race team. A well-backed French entry would also add colour to the fleet and likely be a competitive addition.
More speculatively still, there could be a return for Alinghi, Cup winners in 2003 and the hosts of the most commercially successful competition yet, the 32nd edition in Valencia six years ago. Ernesto Bertarelli’s team is currently competing in the Extreme Sailing Series and might fancy the opportunity to resume a bitter rivalry with Ellison and Team Oracle. And what of Red Bull? The energy drink manufacturing sports marketing juggernaut has been a prominent sponsor of the inaugural Youth America’s Cup in San Francisco this summer and might be attracted by the high technology and extreme nature of the new generation Cup boats.
It will also be worth tracking the progress of Russian oil giant Gazprom's tie-up with the Saint Petersburg Yacht Club, announced in June with the public aim of fielding an America's Cup team in 2017.
As Ellison and Coutts set to work on the template for sailing’s most high-profile contest, maintaining the momentum of the last week is a must. The World Series, which had a laboured debut in the two years preceding the 34th Cup, must be refined to create a compelling narrative in the long periods between Cup matches. The next iteration should be ready to go within a year, with the express aim of promoting the Cup and its new batch of participants - indeed, perhaps a condition of challenging should be preparedness to host a World Series regatta, to spread the America’s Cup word around the world. Reducing and then controlling budgets, however, will be fundamental in attracting the number of challengers required to make the World Series and the Louis Vuitton Cup a viable commercial and broadcast proposition.
Team Oracle USA and the organisers of the 34th Cup deserve their champagne moment after a trying few years of preparation and several calamitous months in the immediate lead-up to the grand finale. But not for too long; making the next chapter in the long history of this always-fascinating, occasionally maddening event a success will not be the work of a moment.