Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, there is one thing that’s for certain in the America’s Cup - Win it and you’ll never be as popular again, especially with future challengers, says Matthew Sheahan
Debate and disagreement go hand in hand with the oldest trophy in international sport, often because a wealthy individual is considered to be trying to outspend the competition. But rarely is there an outburst over reducing costs.
From having been an avid follower of the event for decades, to my first Cup in Auckland in 2002, (after which I’ve covered every one since, including virtually all of the inbetween races and series), the last 13 years have delivered a period of huge change.
When a defending yacht club with no coastline set about putting the venue out to tender back in 2004 the bitter controversy that followed set new standards. Yet three years later and the Valencian project that was the 32nd America’s Cup, was heralded as a resounding success by all but the resolute diehards. Today, that period now represents the good old days and people have forgotten about the wrangling over TV rights and revenues and the controversy surrounding various commercial deals. Since the Australians ended the longest winning streak in history, the Cup has been hot property and as such will always result in some kind of dispute.
The latest cycle has continued to seek to appeal to a broader audience but has also provided the biggest leap in performance in the history of the Cup both of which have sparked yet more debate and open criticism.
The plan to ditch the AC62s, of which none have yet been built, in favour of the smaller cat was a surprise to many, particularly as this idea had been discussed with teams around a year ago. Such a significant change mid way through a Cup cycle is undoubtedly a big modification and in the America’s Cup such alterations often mean trouble.
But this is not the first time that a class has been changed in the middle of a Cup cycle as some have been declaring.
Dumping the AC90s back in 2008 in an effort to reduce costs for the 33rd AC will still haunt those who were burnt by the consequences of what happed next and the time the Cup spent in court.
Frankly, I don’t see what there is to dislike about high performance machines that are exciting to watch, challenging to sail and take the sport into brand new territory.
To me, the Cup has always been about two things throughout its 164 year history, the ultimate match race and the leading edge of yacht design and construction.
I don’t get why you wouldn’t want our sport to attract more attention, particularly from television companies who bid for the rights to cover the event.
I don’t get why anyone would not want the America’s Cup to represent anything other than the technical pinnacle of our sport.
And I also don’t get why you would want to go back to monohull lead mines that plod their way upwind and barely go any faster downwind. We’ve done that for many years. I watched all the races of the 31st and 32nd Cups, hundreds of them and many in between and while some were thrilling the majority of the races were dull and processional.
But don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of those Cups. I loved the technology and the buzz and the fact that people were watching, listening and reading about it. I even liked the secrecy. But now it’s time for something new and 2013 gave us a glimpse of where the professional end of our sport could head in the future.
The AC72s of the last Cup, combined with some outstanding television and one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time, demonstrated just how far sailing can travel into the consciousness of the mainstream public when there’s a real story to tell.
When I got back to the UK after covering the event day by day in San Francisco, I was staggered by how many people that had no previous interest in sailing had watched the Cup. Not since the days of Ellen MacArthur had the country been so interested in sailing.
Foiling has been an inspiration to great swathes of existing sailors, particularly the young who have already demonstrated how quickly they can handle the new technology of high performance skiff dinghies and foiling Moths and have helped to raise the bar in the big boat world.
And it’s not just racers, look at Gunboats’ new foiling cruising cat, the G4. You might think cruising on foils is mad, but look at where the sport has come in a few years. Now tell the younger sailors that we’ve decided foiling’s not that great after all and its time to calm down and go back to monohulls.
We cannot dis-invent technology and nor should we.
Foiling Cup boats will and do already draw in a new, younger generation of sailors to a rapidly developing area of our sport that is exciting, stimulating and inspiring. The Cup is no longer something youngsters associate with their parents’ generation. Cup boats are now cool.
In the UK at least, the Cup is on the brink of changing the way that millions of people outside sailing perceive our sport. Here, Great Britain has the best chance in the history of the Cup, led by the world’s most successful Olympic sailor, backed by an impressive number of serious players in the business world who have already created a charitable Trust that has Royal support and is designed to use sailing to reach well into mainstream society.
The new Cup and the way that it was presented in San Francisco was the catalyst for all of that.
Sure, there have been plenty of false dawns when it comes to British campaigns for the Americas Cup and no one is taking anything for granted. Sport is an unpredictable and often cruel business, the backers of the current teams know that, but they can also see an opportunity to make a big change for the benefit of the sport and beyond and not for their own benefit.
And it’s not just the UK where there are changes afoot. During a recent interview with Artemis Racing’s owner Torbjorn Tornqvist the Swedish AC team owner and boss made no bones that he and others like him could afford Cup campaigns, reducing costs would be good for the sport. He also pointed to the lack of younger billionaire backers that are prepared to throw themselves and their money into a Cup campaign.
I sense a change in approach by the billionaire backers and while some will doubtless call me naïve, I believe that while there are bound to be problems, there is a desire to use the Cup to move the sport on and get away from the stigma of an elite sport for people with deep pockets. We have a rare opportunity, lets use it.
I have to admit that it has taken me a while to come around to the idea of using the Cup to create a different style of prestigious event. It took long enough to learn what I know about the history of this superb, prestigious and intoxicating trophy, a big change feels like abandoning history.
But the heritage will always be there and if the Cup can launch sailing onto television, back into the newspapers and into the public’s consciousness, then I’m all for it.