S.F., Ellison can’t let game of chicken sink America’s Cup

Published on February 9th, 2014

by C.W. Nevius, San Francisco Chronicle
In a hotly contested America’s Cup race, there’s often a moment when it looks as if the boats will collide. The teams tack off to the far side of the course and then come roaring back toward one another. Just as a crash looks inevitable, one team gives way.

That’s what’s happening now as the city and Larry Ellison’s America’s Cup syndicate bicker over terms to host the 2017 event. But no one is giving way.

The city insists it’s just holding the line on costs. The Oracle group counters that there are several other locations that would be just as attractive as San Francisco Bay.


Last summer’s event may have been a bit of a slow build, but once we got done with the one-boat “races” and New Zealand versus Oracle got under way, it was a rip-roaring success. Russell Coutts, head of the Oracle team, called the finals “the best ever.” Why mess with that?

You’ll be astonished to hear that the reasons involve money, politics and hefty egos.

The first shot was fired by team Oracle, which said it had a simple proposal: Everything would be the same as last time. Free rent on the piers, no contribution to the public services and – oh, by the way – no hassles about not paying that pesky “prevailing wage” that labor unions were so upset about.

The next sound we heard was officials at City Hall smacking their foreheads with an open palm. Seriously? Negotiations for the first Cup were so acrimonious that the joke was that the unofficial cheer was, “Go New Zealand!” Now they want to stick it to us again?

Admittedly, the mayor’s office gave the Cup a sweetheart deal back in 2010. At that point the economy was slumping, tourism needed a boost, and the America’s Cup sounded like a signature event for the city.

Posturing continues
Fast-forward to today, and we see a booming economy, sky-high rents for the waterfront locations, and a thriving tourist trade. And in 2016, the Bay Area will host the Super Bowl.

Yet the posturing continues. At a Chronicle editorial board meeting this week, Coutts said, “If the city doesn’t feel it is worth it … it will probably end up in another place.”

He added that “one of the key criteria is how motivated they are to have the event.”

This kind of talk, of course, is red meat to critics such as Supervisor John Avalos. His comment in Thursday’s Chronicle about the Cup organizers wanting potential hosts to “grovel before them on their docks and piers” was classic.

Just a word of advice, sailors: If you give him the opening, there’s plenty more where that came from.

So this would be a good time for a deep breath and some straight talk. Here are a few hard realities:

First, the San Francisco Bay is the best place for the race. It looked awesome on television all over the world.

Second, rent will have to be paid for the use of the piers. That’s just common sense. The teams are paying millions to design, build and race a boat; a rental fee won’t hurt anyone.

Third, there can be absolutely no misunderstanding about using union labor and paying the prevailing wage. The mix-up last time, when Oracle ended up having to pay more than $400,000 in back wages because of a “misunderstanding,” cannot happen again.

Spotlight on Ellison
Also, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Ellison to speak up in public. There’s a rumor that he doesn’t feel he got the credit he deserved for staging the event and the thrilling comeback win.

Well, it’s hard to appreciate a guy who gives the impression that he’s too important to be bothered with the little people. San Francisco loves a renegade. Just give us a chance, Larry.

And finally – and this is important, if it really and truly comes down to a game of chicken, and the Oracle team says, “We warned you. You didn’t give us what we wanted, so we are taking our Cup elsewhere,” I think I can sum up San Francisco’s reaction in one word.


C.W. Nevius is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. His columns appear Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: cwnevius@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @cwnevius Story

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