America’s Cup Press Conference Announces “More Thinking Time Needed”

The America’s Cup was back in the news yesterday for all the right reasons. A much anticipated press conference presented a new vision for the trophy – a united front, with Defender and Challenger of Record in agreement on the manner in which to move forward. But Russell Coutts and Vincenzo Onorato will have to state some preferences and show some leadership, otherwise the design by consensus process outlined may produce a compromise event.

Russell Coutts started by acknowledging a subtle change in the communications from BMW ORACLE and the Golden Gate Yacht Club. The event was compared by America’s Cup sailor Cam Lewis, a sailor, not an ‘off the water’ rules expert.

But Coutts’ opening remarks also made reference to the business of the America’s Cup, citing past tycoons that had participated including; J.P Morgan, Sir Thomas Lipton and Ted Turner. These were not just people who transformed sailing, they were men who transformed business. The AC34 organisation now needs to walk a fine line between keeping the traditions of the cup alive while going after the cash in the form of television and venue revenues.

The headlines

  • New rules issued before entries closed with independent professional management.
  • A new class of fast, exciting boats created in conjunction with all teams.
  • Annual racing in multiple venues to increase commercial viability
  • Transformed television and online coverage

Coutts said that ‘they’ wanted to give a voice to experts who have never been asked before. These included fans, but more importantly for the money men television executives and event management companies. The changes to sailing could be far reaching, having an effect on fundamental elements of the sport including boat design and rule changes to allow race officials to change the course and length of racing to fit television schedules.

New Class.

One thing that is certain from yesterday’s press conference is that there will be a new boat. Bruce Nelson and Peter Melvin have been asked to create concepts – one monohull and one multihull. Coutts and Onorato refused to express any preference for one or the other yesterday, instead falling back on what may become a stock phrase for the next few months; “We’ll let the teams decide.”

The brief given to the designers of the new America’s Cup Class rule are:

  • It should produce dynamic and close racing
  • It should use advanced, efficient (green) and cost-effective technologies
  • It should be distinctive as an America’s Cup class
  • It should be able to race in any venue in winds from 5-35 knots

The last condition is a result of television executive input based on America’s Cup events of the past. Coutts and Lewis agreed that for a race that is supposed to be the pinnacle of sailing to be cancelled because of too much wind sent the wrong message. Coutts also said that his preference was for boats that were ‘physical’  – where all the sailors on the boat were active, not strategists.

Whatever the final shape and size of the boat, the plan is to have them racing in a regular series by 2012.

The Venue.

Coutts states that the right to choose the venue of the America’s Cup is one of the most rewarding aspects of winning the trophy. While Valencia was chosen by Alinghi because Switzerland has no open sea, it would be a big shift in the America’s Cup for the defender not to hold the final races on home soil. Despite the USA having about 12,000 miles of coastline, Coutts refused to confirm that racing would be held there. Given the commitment to transform the televisual element of the event, perhaps the final will be held in a timezone that would make the event broadcast on US prime-time.

The venue will be announced by the 31st of December.

Given the venue for yesterday’s announcements, Rome may have a place in part of the America’s Cup sailing calendar. Russell Coutts responded to local media saying he wouldn’t rule it out and Vincenzo Onorato said that they needed to look into it.

Annual Series.

Even if the Americas Cup is tweaked to bring the event in line with other major sporting events, the cycle makes it very difficult to make the trophy financially viable without resorting to private cheque books. Teams have struggled to stay afloat in the years where there is no racing and commercial partners can’t make the most of their investments.

Russell Coutts has announced that there will be an annual America’s Cup series using the new class of boats. While he admits that this will increase the costs for teams, he believes that there would be increased value to cover it. The conference was attended by Bruno Trouble and Paul Cayard representing the World Sailing Teams Association (WSTA) and the Louis Vuitton Trophy. Coutts said that there were large sponsors from the past who were pleased with the direction the Defender was taking, hinting that Louis Vuitton would return to the America’s Cup after a very public spat with Alinghi.

While the boat class and the protocol are open to the teams for discussion, the format of the annual series is looking like a done deal. The official press release includes a sales-pitch from Paul Cayard that doesn’t mention any of the reforms to the Cup, but rather positions the WSTA and Louis Vuitton Trophy as the natural home of the America’s Cup Class…

“We believe that the WSTA and its Louis Vuitton Trophy events are exactly the type of activity that needs to be incorporated into the big picture of the America’s Cup. With its global venues in important markets, regular calendar of events, tight racing in America’s Cup class boats, equal representation for each team, these events represent great commercial value that the teams can pass along to their sponsors.”

The announcement of the regular racing may impact on series like the Audi Med Cup where several teams are currently competing.

The Future of the Cup.

Yesterday’s conference was a lot of symbolic smoke and spin, but it needed to be done. Coutts and Onorato seem to think that teams who want to compete will come to a consensus about what the boat will look like and how the event will be run and Turner Sports or ESPN will tweak it so that we all tune in to watch.

One of the more interesting questions that Russell Coutts did express an opinion on, was about the introduction of nationality rules for crew. Coutts initially answered with the stock “We’ll ask the teams”, but then added that personally he would be in favour of such a change.

Key Dates Announced

  • Protocol for the 34th America’s Cup will be issued by 31st August
  • Design rule released by 30th September
  • Notice of Race & Sailing Instructions published by 31st December
  • Venue confirmed by 31st December
  • Challenge Period open from 1st October – 31st January 2011

You can watch a replay of the Press Conference here…