To this day it still gets under Russell Coutts' skin. This week I got a chance to catch up with Coutts, the CEO of Oracle Team USA. Months removed from his victorious America's Cup campaign, he's back in New Zealand, getting ready for Christmas and wrapping last second presents. And yet even now I can hear the exasperation in his voice. "I get pissed off when people are calling it Larry Ellison's yacht race," crackles his voice over the phone. "It's just an easy thing for people to take a shot at. And when you look at the event, yes he's the team owner, so am not disputing that, but come one, calling it his hobby?"
The cause for this emotion is the fact that San Francisco has just submitted its bid to host the next America's Cup. For some people, this is almost reason to head to the barricades with pitchforks to prevent the sky from falling once more. The only problem is that the sky didn't fall lat time, and in reality the next edition has the potential to be truly epic.
Which is not to say that Coutts thinks everything went perfectly. Even as the races were happening he acknowledged that the wild 72-foot catamarans would not continue. They turned out to cost too much, directly impacting the number of syndicates that showed up to challenge for the Cup. They also cost a mint to maintain and get into the water every day. With normal boats, you just drop the sails and park it for the night. The multi-million dollar hulls (or "platforms," as they became known) had to be separated from their 130-foot solid wings every day as they were impossible to control with the wings attached.
Some of the teams (or "syndicates") swelled to over a hundred people as the true impact of keeping these monsters in fighting trim became apparent. The size of their bases also meant that the teams were scattered around the Bay, from Piers 30/32 to Pier 80 to Alameda. As a result, fans were deprived of a "pit row" where they could get close to the boats and the teams. I personally think this would have gone a great way in making people realize this was not just a billionaire's game, but a sport inhabited by amazing working-class athletes.
But the second the new proposal was announced, the cry went up from the barricades that the city lost money on the last Cup. To which I respond: that's true. And also: it's not true. To the first point, I feel like this is the Cup's "Obamacare moment." It wasn't the fact that people lost their coverage that was the worst part; it's that the president swore up and down they wouldn't. By the same token, at the outset of the Cup efforts, no one predicted we would wind up with only three Challengers -- and thus four total syndicates. And yet the claim was made that the Cup would not cost the city money. The fact is that there was a cost to the city.
However, there is also the other side of the coin to consider. If someone walked up to you and said, "If you give me five dollars, I will give you three hundred," would you do it? That is what the numbers are for this year's Cup -- a cost to the city of a little over $5 million, to a direct impact (using the low end estimate) over $300 million dollars in new economic activity (according to the preliminary report from the Bay Area Council). This number only includes the directly measurable attendance, the visitors to either the America's Cup Park or the America's Cup Village, and none of the thousands of people lining the shores of San Francisco or watching from places such as Pier 39.
It is also important to realize that many of the infrastructure costs were already absorbed in this year's Cup, so work on piers, seawalls and on the Embarcadero will not be incurred the next time around. But the biggest change is going to be the number of syndicates for 2016. Already Oracle's Ben Ainslie has been poached to start an English team, and the Australians and New Zealanders are in the hunt. The Swedish and Italian syndicates are already in action, and according to sources at least one very well funded syndicate will come out of Asia.
One reason for the increased participation is the fact that Coutts and others working on the next Cup are already refining the event based on this year's races. The catamarans are remaining, but they will be between 60 and 65 feet, and this is the biggest upside for San Francisco. Smaller boats mean more teams, but also a smaller infrastructure needed to keep them in the water. As a result, the syndicates would be grouped together at Piers 27/29 as well as the piers on either side, creating that "pit row" that NASCAR fans enjoy. At night visitors will be able to walk down the park where the concert arena was this year and watch the teams getting ready for the next day's races. In addition, the rules are going to be more tightly written to lower the cost for the teams even more. Don't be surprised if the designers of the rules put a "box" around parts of the boats -- either the platform or the wing -- designating that part to be a "one-design" element so it will be uniform among all the teams.
Most importantly, at the end of last year's event, even the casual observer learned that, as always, The Cup is about the sailors. No one talks about "Jed York's 49ers," or "Peter Gruber's Warriors." It's Kaep, and Crab and Steph. And by the end of this year's Cup it was Jimmy and Jono and Sir Ben, not Larry Ellison.
This year's Cup was one of the best for a very simple reason: it came down the most talented sailors, racing on the fastest boats, on the best patch of water in the world. I can't wait to see it again.