What does the America’s Cup need?

Published on May 20th, 2020

Dr. Hamish Ross

Dr. Hamish Ross, a legal advisor for America’s Cup teams who completed a PhD at the University of Auckland on the legal issues surrounding the America’s Cup, ponders the variables pulling on this enduring event.


In 12 months’ time, we will likely know what the 37th America’s Cup (in 2023?) will look like. Naturally, it all depends on the outcome of AC36 in 2021.

Typically, a winner tends to stick with their success, on the basis that have a proven edge. Although, this may not be the case for AC37 and a possibly changed economic environment. Competitors are all naturally reticent about talking about their vision for the future, least it distract or risk bad karma.

In the deeper past, it has taken a significant event to cause a change in class of yachts. The J-Class came in after a long hiatus in racing in the 1920s, the 12-Metres after the Second World War and a need for a cheaper vessel, the IACC class after the Mercury Bay disruption and a need for a “hotrod” 12 for San Diego and multihulls after the 2010 Deed match.

It is said that a New York Yacht Club victory would see a return to more traditional sailing, nothing is known of the Royal Yacht Squadron intentions, and Bertelli is a fan of a more traditional monohull America’s Cup. The Defender’s intentions are also unknown but based on past history it would seem more likely than not that it will be more of the same, albeit with refinements.

What does the America’s Cup need? In short, more competitors.

It has yet to recover in terms of numbers from the events of 2007-2010 when 2007 in Valencia had 12 competitors. Since then it has been struggling along at around half this number. What has been the problem?

For sure global economics have not been as favorable since 2007 and now in the middle of COVID 19 even less so. The constant change in to the class of yacht to be raced is an issue and needs to settle down. A new class every Cup Regatta is not sustainable. Technology and with it the design and sailing skills needed to work with it is a barrier to new competitors.

Those funding a new competitor need to be able to dream and believe they have a chance of winning. Cost is a perennial issue – this is largely a function of time – the longer you have to keep a team the more it costs.

Preliminary events outside the match venue are very expensive – is there value in them if all the associated costs are not covered by a venue/sponsors? This is ripe for a cost/benefit analysis for competitors.

The other issue is where should the Cup be on the design-sailor continuum, that is to say should the Cup be more at the open design end or more towards the one class design end? Clearly, since 2007 the pendulum has swung heavily to the design side and some may argue at the cost of the sailor side.

We have gained much speed and some amazing technology, but have lost some human elements of sailing skills such as sail changes, sail handling, pre-starts, and a degree of tactical decision making. If it is to be totally technology driven, we must be at the point of completely robotic or Xbox sailing and few I suspect would be in favour of losing the human element, as without it, it maybe ceases to be sport.

We have lost the observer position which allowed, between 1992 and 2007, a wealthy backer to be part of the sports team. What sport offers the same opportunity to play on the field or court with the rock stars?

This is a unique opportunity the Cup can offer and yet it has been spurned since 2007. If you are asking a wealthy person to challenge for the Cup then find a way to make him part of the team. Without it, I doubt whether we would have seen many of the recent (and now departed) wealthy backers.

There are no right or wrong answers. All of us have different perspectives. Only correct answers are the ones that brings in more competitors, fans, and therefore opens sponsor and venue check books. AC37 for sure will need to be cheaper, shorter and more accessible for prospective new competitors.

All food for thought, discussion, and a glass or two.

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