Russell Coutts: Transforming the America’s Cup

Published on May 23rd, 2017

Sir Russell Coutts, five-time winner of the America’s Cup, now holds the chief executive role of the America’s Cup Event Authority that is hosting the 35th America’s Cup. Russell pens for The Telegraph how he got here, and where the road extends.

Russell Coutts

The Olympics were an interruption to my studies
It wasn’t a given that sailing would be my life. I was studying structural engineering when I entered the Olympics in 1984. It was a good interruption to win a medal [a gold in the Finn class sailing] but it was an interruption all the same, so by the time I graduated the 1987 crash had happened and there wasn’t a lot of work. It was my father’s suggestion to get involved with New Zealand’s America’s Cup bid in 1990. He thought it would only be for a few years, but it turned out to be a bit longer than that.

Dennis Conner was my inspiration
When I was growing up the America’s Cup and the sailing world was dominated by [four times winner] Dennis Conner. It was said he’d sail at least 320 days a year – his approach was to leave no stone unturned. He set the standard and was very much my inspiration. My other hero was the Danish sailor Paul Elvstrøm. He won four Olympic Golds and I wasn’t alone in thinking his record would never be beaten. Then Ben Ainslie came along and won four golds and a silver.

I was lucky to be sailing during the era that the America’s Cup became professional. Now sailors and the shore crew get paid properly but before 1990 the best anyone could hope for was a food allowance. It was an amateur competition and only really became fully professional in 1995.

I get bored pretty quickly
There’s always a time to move on. I’ve never wanted to outlive my abilities and motivation. Most people don’t move on soon enough. I’ve always taken pride in bringing new people into the roles I vacate. Plus I like new challenges; I can get bored pretty quickly.

Larry Ellison changed everything for us
Larry Ellison is a visionary. He aimed to make the America’s Cup more televisual from day one – more exciting and more understandable for the casual viewer. That was not easy in sailing. David Hill, chief executive of Fox networks in Australia, told us, “It’s just white triangles on a blue background.”

But Larry pushed us to find a way to superimpose the race graphics over the television images, in a similar style as had recently been applied to the NFL. We developed that and it changed everything for us – things like course boundaries and even the sponsors’ names on the course came from that vision.

Foils are here to stay
Growth never comes with an ageing demographic. If you talk to junior sailors it’s the new generation of foiling boats below the America’s Cup boats that captures their imagination. I’m 55 so perhaps what I have to say is irrelevant. Foils on boats are here to stay. And not just on racing boats but on pleasure boats too – there’s a water taxi being developed for Paris that’s on foils. America’s Cup certainly fast-tracked the development of the technology.

Ideally you would have 10-12 teams in the America’s Cup

A business has to be profitable for it to be sustainable. Income comes in cycles with something like the America’s Cup, so it’s vital you control the one thing you can – and that’s your costs. There are fewer and fewer people prepared to tip money into passion projects so we have to make it pay, and we are. We are already returning a minimum of seven times the value of the investment of our partners and the next cycle we will be profitable. That encourages growth, so you will see more teams joining; ideally you would have 10-12.

You will always get resistance, especially when the product you are developing is so traditional. But you can’t turn the clock back. No matter who wins this year, the organization is going to want to stage the best America’s Cup they can and broadcasters and sponsors would resist any retrograde steps. The technology is here to stay.

Never give up
You can’t ask too much of newcomers if you want growth. It’s a daunting business starting an America’s Cup team from scratch so allowing existing teams to sell their technology – as Oracle have done to SoftBank Japan – is one of the best moves we’ve made.

I once asked Larry Ellison what the key things are to being successful in business. He started with quite an elaborate answer and must have seen my eyes glaze over. So he stopped himself and said, “Forget all that. None of that matters. The only thing that matters really, is… never give up.”

And he’s dead right.

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Editor’s note: It’s hard to know what the America’s Cup would look like if Larry Ellison never won it in 2010 after a lengthy court battle. Maybe changes were needed, but it didn’t seem like it in 2007. There were 12 teams, technical knowledge was widespread, and the event was profitable. For 2013, the change to multihulls was to grow the audience, but limited sailing and design skills now made entry formidable. As a sailor, Coutts had helped increase the payscale, which was now the costliest line item. Who knows where we would be today, but we are where we are, so pour yourself a Dark ‘n’ Stormy, find your broadcast schedule, and enjoy the show.

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