Ben Ainslie thinks the America's Cup in Bermuda would be a great challenge
Today the dates for the two British legs of the America’s Cup World Series which will be hosted in Portsmouth were announced – 23-26 July 2015 & 21-24 July 2016. But the broader questions surrounded rumours that the 2017 America’s Cup venue is about to be confirmed as Bermuda.
America’s Cup in Bermuda? What would that mean for his challenge?
The America’s Cup World Series coming to Porstmouth is big news for the UK and even bigger news for the historic city that is currently busy building the Ben Ainslie Racing base in Camber Quay. It was certainly important enough for our prime minister David Cameron to send a note of support to the Ben Ainslie racing press conference this morning. (At the last UK America’s Cup press conference the message to be read out was from was the Duchess of Cambridge, it seems there are some very big hitters behind this Cup cycle.)
Sir Keith Mills opened the press conference with details of how the two events would run from the racing to the stalls and the car parking. Make no mistake, these events are happening and Mill’s Team Origin (re-configured to be the event organising company) are already onto the case.
But for those that have followed the latest America’s Cup rumour gossip and leaks, there was one question that needed to be answered following the apparent leak last week – ‘Was the next America’s Cup really going to be in Bermuda rather than the other option, San Diego?’
Unsurprisingly neither Mills nor Ainslie, who spoke later, would confirm anything other than that they like us would find out at the official announcement in New York on 3 December.
But unlike many other Cup rumours and leaks this one seems to have legs and has certainly worried whole swathes of Cup professionals and followers.
The idea that a British overseas territory, 640 miles to the north west of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, would be where the USA would defend the America’s Cup has caused a great deal of debate and dismay in many quarters.
How could Oracle and the Golden Gate Yacht Club take an event so far offshore after fighting so hard and for so long to host it? Why had they chosen a small, expensive and exclusive island where there are said to be 17 hotels and less than 2,000 beds?
If the event was hoping to attract teams with commercial backing, why had they denied those that will be supported by sponsors the opportunity to tap into the American market?
And if it is true, why has the America’s Cup ended up so far away from a potential public that had become hooked after the last event in San Francisco? Who would be able to travel to the island to watch the racing other than those with deep pockets and a penchant for long term planning?
All these questions and more have been rattling around for the last few days based on the assumption that the news we are about to hear on 3 December in New York is true. While Sir Keith described the Bermuda talk as being the, ‘Worst kept secret in history,’ he went on to confirm that they too would be waiting for official confirmation later.
But assuming that the island is indeed the choice there are some reasons why the idea might make good sense both for teams and the event.
“The reality is for all sport be it soccer or Formula 1, vast numbers of people consume those sports on television,” said Sir Keith. “A very small number actually see it live. Sailing is no different. I think it would be great if we had hundreds of thousands of spectators, but it’s not absolutely essential, provided that the television coverage and the sport is fantastic then it will be consumed by tens, if not hundreds of millions of spectators around the world. That’s the way sport gets consumed these days.”
His words make a great deal of sense. Selling TV rights was at the heart of the commercial plan last time around for the 34th America’s Cup that culminated in San Francisco, but for a variety of reasons it failed. The event didn’t earn anywhere near the money it expected to from TV and even had to pay to get it broadcast.
Thousands of people turning up in San Francisco to watch the last America’s Cup certainly made for a great spectacle and a buzz, but it made no difference to the economy of the Cup or the city. If it had maybe San Francisco would have been keener to keep the event.
From a timing point of view, running the event in Bermuda would work far better for television in Europe at least. In the next Cup cycle as it stands at present there are four European teams who may all have applied some pressure. It could even make sense for the Kiwis. A 2pm starting gun in Bermuda would translate to 7am in New Zealand, 10am in San Francisco, 1pm in New York, 6pm in Britain and 7pm in Italy
But what about the issue of lack of infrastructure in Bermuda?
“If it does go to Bermuda the issues of infrastructure and accommodation will be dealt with,” said Sir Keith. “Having thought long and hard about Weymouth for the Olympic Games we were looking at the possibility of using cruise ships and other ways of dealing with problems such as accommodation and the likes, I think that is what the organisers are going to have to consider.”
So what about from a sailing point of view? There are always concerns and criticisms over the typical weather conditions and their suitability for an America’s Cup. Forecasts that often don’t prevail come the heat of the moment. Ben Ainslie has sailed a good deal in Bermuda over the years, what did he think of the weather prospects?
“I haven’t sailed that much in San Diego but I have in Bermuda for the Gold Cup and I think that it [the weather] would be a great challenge for the teams,” he said. “It’s pretty variable, so from a design point of view it would be a pretty big challenge for everybody.
“You look at the wind charts and one day it might be six knots and the next it might be twenty knots. So from a design perspective you need to cover a whole range of conditions rather than like San Diego where it may be 8 knots every day or San Francisco where it might more typically be 15-20 knots.”
Would he feel more comfortable with that large range?
“Yes, I think it’s a great challenge and certainly talking to our design team they’re up to that,” he continued. “They think it’s intriguing and it gives them a lot more to focus on.”
Was he personally less fazed about a wide variety of conditions given the many places such as Qingdao, Valencia and Weymouth where the weather was at odds with the norm when it mattered the most?
“Once a decision has been made on the venue, we as competitors are not going to change that,” he said. “You have to embrace it. I remember the first time I went sailing in Sydney in the build up to the Olympics and had a complete dummy spit about the conditions. John Derbyshire [the then British team manager] said to me then that, ‘They are not going to change the venue of the Olympics for you so you’d better embrace it and enjoy it otherwise you won’t have hope of winning this thing. And that’s what you have to do.”
So what about the venue itself, would it stack up from a spectator’s point of view?
“I think the focus is really on the TV and television broadcast times are good,” he said. “Visually, Great Sound would be amazing with great water colours and conditions along with everything else, so I think that’s the focus. As far as getting the foot fall in, it would be more challenging than say San Diego, but both venues have their pros and cons.”
Perhaps another consideration has come down to which location has paid the most and/or who’s offered the biggest tax incentives reducing the costs for the teams and the organisers while allowing the online and TV product to be sold around the world more easily.
“We haven’t been party to how they approached it,” continued Sir Keith. “I don’t know whether they [Cup organisers] were going out trying to find the city that would pay the most money. There are plenty that would like to host the America’s Cup but there are plenty of reasons that may make it difficult.
“Perhaps it’s logistical. The trouble with these major events especially if you have the challenger series running followed by the Cup itself is that you have to block off part of your city for a long time. Perhaps that was difficult logistically. Putting my Olympic hat on I know how intrusive these major events are and you need a pretty compliant city to make them work.”
So as the rumour mill and online debating society continue to churn over the issue, the America’s Cup authorities remain silent on the issue. Perhaps the leak has been a well orchestrated distraction to generate even more interest, web stories and social media comments. Perhaps it is the biggest spoof of the modern Cup. Or perhaps they simply know that saying anything will simply stir up a hornets’ nest as it usually does in the Cup.
Having covered several controversial America’s Cup venue announcements from the appointment of Valencia for the 32nd Cup, when we were all expecting to be told it was Cascais in Portugal, to Ras Al Khaimah in the Arab Emirates for the multihull dog match, I wouldn’t be surprised either way.
The only real surprise would be if the final venue decision prevented the Cup from happening.