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America’s Cup: What Happened to Sailing’s Greatest Trophy?

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America’s Cup: What Happened to Sailing’s Greatest Trophy?

Once a huge deal in the world of sports, the America’s Cup has all but fallen off the map in the U.S.

On Wednesday, Emirates Team New Zealand came within one win of claiming the America’s Cup, sailing’s biggest trophy, after beating Oracle Team USA on the San Francisco Bay. The Kiwis so far have won eight of 11 races contested in the best-of-17 format. They could have wrapped up the competition but the potential final race was postponed because of high winds.

Not that anybody in America noticed, or anywhere else for that matter – other than in New Zealand and maybe Australia.

Television ratings for the event have been abysmal, as NBC has relegated it to the sparsely distributed NBC Sports Network. After the opening races, the event managed a .08 rating, meaning only about 110,000 people in the U.S. watched it on television. By comparison, at least 10 times that many Americans regularly watch bowling on TV.

It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, America’s Cup was a pretty big deal – in the U.S. and across the Pacific.

First held in 1851 off the Isle of Wight with the world’s oldest sporting trophy as the prize, the yacht race for decades was contested between the United States and Great Britain. But things became much more interesting when Australia jumped in after a century-long U.S. dominance. It got really heated beginning in the 1970s.

Alan Bond’s Royal Perth Yacht Club mounted a series of challenges to American supremacy and finally wrested the Cup away when his Australia II came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the decisive seventh race against Dennis Conner’s Liberty. The Auld mug left American soil for the first time in 132 years and headed Down Under.

Conner would go from goat to hero four years later, on the windy waters off Fremantle on Australia’s west coast. His Stars & Stripes won a grueling challenger series against upstart New Zealand and then swept Australia’s Kookaburra III to win back the Cup.

The 1987 races drew a huge television audience Stateside and unleashed a yachting boom. Conner was feted as a national sporting icon, with his crew getting a ticker-tape parade in downtown Manhattan and an audience in the White House with President Ronald Reagan. Conner’s book Comeback became a best seller.

But the popularity of the America’s Cup proved short-lived, because billionaires – and lawyers – then got involved.

To be sure, yachting has always been a sport of the well heeled. For example, the skipper of the 1977 winner Courageous was none other than Ted Turner. Professional sailors like Conner relied heavily on the largess of wealthy patrons. As he famously noted: when he’s not sailing he’s busy greasing palms to raise money.

All that changed in 1988, when New Zealand banker Michael Fay lawyered up to force Conner to race his newly built giant yacht. Conner responded by duplicitously racing – and beating – the challenger with a catamaran. This Deed of Gift two-race competition basically ruined the event forever.

The 12-meter yacht, the standard for 30 years, was soon abandoned in favor of the much more sophisticated – and expensive – International America’s Cup Class boats. The super rich got in on the act because they could afford to treat the costly process as a personal hobby. Conner was soon pushed aside by billionaire Bill Koch, who successfully defended the Cup in the next race in 1992.

By then, interest in the America’s Cup was already waning. Six more regattas have been held since 1992, with the Cup passing back-and-forth between the U.S. and New Zealand, a nation with a small population but a fervent yachting culture. It was only interrupted by the Swiss syndicate Societe Nautique de Geneve in the mid-2000s, when it won the Cup with a mercenary lineup featuring a Kiwi skipper and a mostly New Zealander crew. 

Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and the fifth richest man in the world, took the escalating spending to another level when he decided to get a piece of the action. He won back the Cup by mounting a Deed of Gift challenge in 2010 as Fay did in 1988 and chose to host this year’s competition in front of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

The Silicon Valley mogul spent more than $100 million – chump change to a man worth $40 billion – for this year’s Cup defense. It was also decided that AC72, a super lightweight catamaran capable of speeds up to 45 knots, would be used for competition as a way to attract television viewers.

But even with all that expenditure, Oracle Team USA was caught cheating in a preliminary competition and given a two-race penalty before the Cup final was held. Compounding the negative publicity was a tragedy: British sailor Andrew Simpson was killed when his boat capsized during a training session in San Francisco Bay in May. The AC72s were deemed so unsafe that strict wind limits were imposed on the races after several teams withdrew.

At the end, all the investments and sophisticated technology sunk into the new boats generated little interest in the competition except to make the races more dangerous. If anything, Ellison proved that money can’t buy everything – not the oldest trophy in sports, and not even a few thousand television viewers.

Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.