You may not know it from the cricket chorus bursting forth from City Hall, but things are moving along smartly to finalize the plans for the next edition of the America's Cup. To say that last time was a learning experience for the city and the America's Cup folks would be an understatement, but the weird part is the only people who seem to be learning are the latter group.
First and foremost are the boats themselves. The powers that be realized too late last time around that going for the thrilling but wildly expensive 72-foot catamarans was a bit of a reach. Not only did it have the crews scrambling every day to get their charges under control, but the ridiculous complexity of these craft meant huge budgets, huge crews, huge shore staff and only two Defender syndicates hitting the line in fighting trim. For the 2017 Cup, The Class Rule (the rule that governs everything about the boats) has been completed for a few weeks now, and the matches will be raced in 62-foot catamarans with eight man crews.
Now, this may not seem like a massive step down, but they didn't stop there. Not only will the boats be smaller, but each syndicate will only be able to race one, to keep the two-boat syndicates from having a huge advantage over ones that can only afford one. Says Oracle USA CEO Russell Coutts:
That means less equipment, and the boat itself will be cheaper, smaller and less powerful. So the boat cost will be about 60 percent or less to build and you only have to build one and that is going to be quite the cost savings.
To also make sure that the bigger syndicates can't outspend the smaller syndicates into oblivion, the rules are being written tighter than the last time around.
"The intention is that there are some one-design boxes, certainly the wing sails, not strictly one design, but the rule itself is so tight that effectively everyone will wind up with the same one," informs Coutts. In other words, everyone will be limited to basically the same boat design, so wealthier teams can't pay NASA engineers to get an edge over smaller teams. In addition, there will be more attention spent to regulating systems on board the boats too.
All of his starts to create quite the domino effect for the event and the hosting city. The obvious one is the increase in the number of syndicates jumping into the Cup itself and also races leading up to the Cup like the AC45 World Series events in the smaller 45-foot catamarans. Already there are more syndicates lining up to join the AC45 than last time, and many of those syndicates are expected to roll right into the main event.
Another reason for this increased AC45 activity is the fact that the points in the AC45 World Series will roll into the Cup events as well, accounting for as much as 20 percent of the total points the syndicates will take into the America's Cup finals. (Yes, the rumors are true!)
In addition to awarding points in the AC45s, the Defender series (where teams compete to see who will race last year's champion) is changing. The three-month event is just too long to be held in one place. Says Coutts, "Other sports don't run a three month elimination program. It's not realistic to run that in one venue, and not very cost effective either." Instead, Defender races will be held at multiple locations with the semi-finals and finals being held in the host city over the course of one month.
What we're seeing is a far better coordination now between that AC45 series, the Defender series and the Cup Match itself. The result is something that feels more like a traditional sporting season and then playoffs.
In a way, the Cup is marching towards a form that looks more like a mash up between Formula One and NASCAR, with a globe-trotting season to determine the top teams (a la Formula One), and then a "Championship Series" of sorts to determine the final four Defenders (like NASCAR). This system will create at least two events as well as the America's Cup Finals for the host city -- an arrangement that will have events kicking off in 2015 (the host city will be one of several locations for the AC45s), then 2016 (when the 62-foot catamarans start to race for the Cup), and finally 2017 for the main event (Defender's series final plus America's Cup Finals).
So speaking of host cities, where does that leave the local side? The Cup authorities have spanned the globe looking for venues due to the lack of engagement from San Francisco. Although overseas venues were considered, they have now been tapped for stops in the AC45 World Series, leaving four U.S. cities vying for the rights to host. San Diego has already gone public that they are one of the finalists, and despite our own best efforts San Francisco is still in the hunt also, leaving two other mystery locations. By June, that number will be halved to the two final venues, and I am not optimistic.
It's too bad, given the major steps made to grow the event. The smaller boats don't just mean more syndicates this time around, but also a better audience experience. For instance, here in San Francisco the idea is for all four of the Defenders to be housed together on Piers 27 and 29, creating a "pit row" where the public can see these incredible machines up close. Last year, with multi-boat campaigns and syndicates numbering a hundred staff, there was no way to pull this off, and the syndicates' bases were scattered around the bay and isolated.
So will San Francisco be able to benefit from a grown up America's Cup? Says Coutts:
I think that we laid it out pretty clearly at the start what we needed and that is what we are looking for, but one of the problems is some of the politicians offered the event last time, things that cost them a lot of money without actually looking at the other side of the equations, the value added. And that has kind of backed them into a corner I think, but we will see how they come out of it.
Will they come out of it? I doubt it. We'll probably be watching the Cup from afar next year, as the ghosts of catamarans sail past our crumbling waterfront. Well, at least we have that.