What’s Nationality got to do with it?

Published on May 20th, 2021

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt Sailing News
In America’s Cup parlance, an entry represents a club, and the team flies the flag of its club’s country. For years the sailors were nationals of that country too, but as it was not regulated, a sailor’s skill soon mattered more than their nationality.

As the America’s Cup trophy was donated upon the condition that it shall be preserved as a perpetual challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries, it put into question that pretense when the crew sailing the boat did not resemble the flag that it flew.

Attempts over the years to initiate crew nationality rules have come and gone, with self-interest typically driving any decision. Such is the case with the next edition in which a rule will require either 100% of the race crew to be nationals of their team’s yacht club or some less stringent options.

With both the Kiwi defender and British Challenger of Record easily able to maintain that standard, self-interest wins again.

Russell Coutts would tell me how he had wanted to initiate a strong nationality rule while organizing the 2013 America’s Cup, but it was interested challengers who swayed him away from it, claiming it would hinder their ability to enter.

It was all quite believable except for how Coutts’ USA team had hardly an American among the crew, and near universal agreement that his desire to heighten interest in the America’s Cup would benefit from stronger national branding.

However, Jack Griffin of CupExperience News finds the sailor nationality rule as fool’s gold. Here’s his view:

• It hurts the athletes. It affects their ability to negotiate compensation.
• It keeps great sailors out of the competition. Think of Australians Nathan Outteridge and Tom Slingsby. Think of Kiwi helmsman Phil Robertson. Think of all the Kiwi sailors who have worked for other syndicates in the recent past. Think of the abundance of British talent. What is the likelihood we will see a French challenger?
• There is no basis for sailor nationality rules in the history of the America’s Cup.
• I don’t think it will move the needle in building the audience or broadcast revenues. Enthusiastic fans like us will continue to follow it closely, but otherwise it remains a niche event.
• I think it will detract from the event to see foreigners in key roles on “emerging nation” yachts.

Jack makes good points, though I would counter that heightened sailor compensation has reduced participation, making the event unaffordable to countries like Australia. If the event was more affordable, it would increase participation, opportunity, and enthusiasm.

I don’t play soccer but I passionately watch the World Cup every four years, and I suspect sports fans would embrace the America’s Cup if the national colors on the sail had more meaning. Maybe we will find out…

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