America’s Cup: Opportunity lost in Auckland

Published on February 25th, 2021

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt Sailing News
Russell Coutts knew he got lucky in 2013. As the CEO of defender Oracle Team USA, he had made massive changes to the America’s Cup to heighten its spectator and broadcast appeal, but the one thing he couldn’t control was central to any good competition – close racing.

Close racing, or close anything in sport, holds the viewer’s attention, and by all accounts that wasn’t going to happen in 2013. There was a clear pecking order among the challengers, and his team was still scrambling from their disastrous 2012 capsize.

In their America’s Cup Match against New Zealand, they were trailing 8-1, and defeat seemed eminent. Like so many Super Bowl blow-out, the racing didn’t live up to the hype. But then his team pulled off the miracle comeback, winning eight consecutive races to retain the trophy, pulling off a 9-8 victory in the first-to-nine series.

It was must-see television, gaining attention for a sport that struggles to do so. Skipper Jimmy Spithill did late night talk shows. The buzz was loud, and while everyone was patting themselves on the back, Coutts knew he had to figure out how to create close racing. If he was to build the America’s Cup into an entertainment property, the show had to be reliably good.

So he did. He changed the boats for the 2017 America’s Cup, making them faster but more importantly, more even. Creating a design rule that incorporated one design parts, it lowered the barrier to entry and evened up performance. More teams, closer racing. Perfecto!

Coutts even sought to initiate a long-term plan for the Cup, a key variable needed to sustain sponsor and broadcast interest. He got all the teams to buy into his vision except one – Emirates Team New Zealand. And when the Kiwis won the 2017 Match, the Coutts era was over.

But as one door closes, another opens, and Coutts took everything he learned from the America’s Cup and is now applying it, without the restrictions within the Deed of Gift, to his SailGP global sports league.

As for the America’s Cup, it continues to wobble down the street as it pursues its goal of broadening interest. In this observation by Peter Brown, he remarks on a key detail of the Prada Cup Challenger Selection Series which impacted the entertainment value of the racing:

While every commentator says how exciting the America’s Cup World Series event and Prada Cup had been, the numbers belie it. The Prada Cup races were ultimately lopsided victories, first by INEOS and then by Luna Rossa. This was due in no small measure to the fact that no changes to the boats were allowed once the round starts.

Why? I remember Dennis Conner had multiple ratings for Liberty and Freedom in the 1980s. Depending on the conditions, he altered the ballast and sail area; as long as the boat was still a 12 Meter it was fine.

How much more exciting would these recent races had been if INEOS could have changed their undersized foils yet still remain within the AC75 formula? Instead, it was a daily shellacking. Conversely, Luna Rossa were definitely off the pace in the Round Robins while stuck with the design package they declared.

Ultimately, by letting the teams alter their boats during the series, they are going to learn to create a faster boat and have a better chance against ETNZ.

Indeed, and by allowing each team to make these steps, the racing becomes closer and less predictable, which makes for a good show. Opportunity lost…

More information:
• America’s Cup format, standings, and how to watch online: click here.
• Complete America’s Cup coverage: click here
• Additional America’s Cup information: click here

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