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America's Cup- An update from the Big Fella

by Richard Gladwell on 20 Jan 2012
Iain Murray goes walkabout at the AC World Series - Plymouth 2011, with Prince Michael of Kent ACEA - Photo Gilles Martin-Raget ©

Getting out of bed at 6.00am to talk on the phone to a bunch of fully wired sailing journalists spread across three continents, probably isn’t the ideal start to a day.

So it was no surprise that 'Big Fella', as Iain Murray is known in his native Australia, was talking in short sentences. The words seemed to rumble out.

Murray was back in Sydney, having taken a break from his role as Regatta Director for the 34th America’s Cup and World Series to compete in the Star class at the 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships, in Perth, do another Rolex Sydney Hobart, and take in a few other regattas besides. That's called taking a break.

In the first two weeks of December, the Perth regatta pulled the attention of the sailing world, as both the main 2012 Olympic Qualifier, and also for the enormous effort put in by the Western Australians to organise the jewel in the ISAF crown.

They took a leaf from the America’s Cup book to take sailing to the people, both ashore and on public television, and live streaming and replay video on the interweb.

Fremantle has a reputation as one of the dream venues for sailing, but assumed more nightmarish qualities when Murray was defending the America’s Cup in 1987 as helmsman aboard Kookaburra III. Then the home team was vanquished by the unstoppable Dennis Conner and his Stars and Stripes crew.

Almost 25 years on, the vivid memories of Freo are still fresh in the public mind – the big breezes, hefty seas, pounding boats became etched in the fans’ imaginations, as the crews wrestled with the elements as much as their competition. Ashore it was just as lively, too.

The ISAF World Sailing Championship organisers were keen to re-create the magic that was Freo. So how did Iain Murray, the competitor, rate the experience?

'When the breeze comes in and the sun comes out in Perth it is a great venue - one of the great venues of the world.

'There were some good things in Perth such as the 49ers finishing amongst the bathers. The Medal Race was in the right topography when they had the wind coming in from the south west. But it was not so good when it was from the SE.

'We were there in the Star class, on courses that were halfway to the America’s Cup courses - and were out on the water for six or seven hours for just two races. None of that had a good feel about it to me.

'They got Channel 10 in Australia to broadcast it live, which was good, the unfortunate thing was that the ratings were not great.

'The key to any sailing event is to get it onto television live. Getting it on live around the world is the difficult thing. In San Diego we had the ACWS going to 17 different countries, being shown live on free to air TV.

'Our live TV in San Diego was double what it was in Plymouth in terms of ratings and number of stations carrying the regatta. So there has been progression and my understanding is that we will have more coverage in Naples.

Murray says that the America’s Cup World Series would have loved to have gone back to the venue of the 1987 Defence. However the dollars just weren’t there after the ISAF Worlds had exhausted available funding.

Event Fees no longer the key issue
Event fees are a controversial part of the America’s Cup World Series. The first three events in 2011 are said to have been done on sweetheart deals, but with the Series now established, Iain Murray, in his recently expanded Regatta Director’s role stridently defends the fees being sought, their value for money and affordability.

'Venues are prepared to pay to cover the costs of the event', he says, 'and we are going to places that will pay .

'Money for Event Fees doesn’t seem to be the ultimate problem. But if we don’t get an Event Fee at the level we need, then we won’t be going.

'Very simply, we are only talking to people who know up front, what it costs.'

Although Murray has some strong opinions on what he calls 'Bengate', with the review process currently underway he prefers that his views stay in school for the time being. Except to say that he believes the positioning of the media boat was 'poor control' and that the sport needs colour. 'We miss the Dennis Conner’s and Tom Blackaller’s jibing with each other,' he said.

European downturn
That point moved to one side, the conversation moved onto the situation in Europe with the withdrawal of the Audi sponsorship from the MedCup, and the implications of that move for the America’s Cup World Series which has four events in Italy in the next two years. Plus there is the issue of the ability of teams to attract sponsorship, in a bear market, to fund their programs.

Murray’s views won’t go down too well in Europe and in professional sailing circles. 'The problem with MedCup and the reason Audi has withdrawn is that they created something that wasn’t sustainable for the owners, who in turn pulled back to the point that there were only going to be four boats. That doesn’t work for anyone.

'The MedCup circuit became too expensive. You needed a new boat every year. You had to have the most professional crew you could, and it was trying to run on three million Euros of Audi money every year – which just isn’t viable.

'It didn’t work for the sponsors obviously, and it didn’t make all the ends meet. So it’s no more.

'That is unfortunate, because the TP52’s are great boats.

'But when times get tough, the owners start watching where the money is going, and it’s a big ticket at the end of the week.

'If you look at what an AC45 costs to run compared to a TP52, there is a big difference. Part of that is the amount professional crews are being paid. In the 45’s there are a lot of young guys who aren’t getting paid that much compared to what some are demanding on the MedCup circuit', he notes.

Having gone through its first year of start up, will the ACWS ever become viable and expand into a sporting property like some others in sailing, but more common in mainstream sports with the major sporting leagues and teams?

Murray believes the ACWS is starting to hit its numbers and is making inroads. Maybe that is at the expense of other sailing events initially, but more so in the longer term where it is offering a new television sport.

'We are getting interest from a lot of parties, including sponsors and supporters, who see the ACWS as being more sustainable and viable. They are looking at the quality of our TV and the distribution, and they like that picture.

World Series expanding
'We are progressing. I am confident that in Naples that we will have 11 boats on the starting line – which is all we can muster - and by mid-year it will be 14 boats.

'In Naples we will have nine teams, and there will be two teams with two boats each in Naples ( Oracle Racing and Luna Rossa). Our big problem is that we are committed to building boats 15 and 16, but we can’t get boat 15 to Naples in time, because of the other things we are doing like the wing extensions and a couple of other bits which are being done by a team of eight working flat out in Auckland. They just can’t get it all done', he adds.

America’s Cup event organisers have often been criticised for not following the model adopted by Volvo Ocean Race, of trying to give a stopover to each entered team. That way each team would have at least one 'home game' in the World Series. So far only the America’s Cup defenders have had a home game, and that was not in their home town.

Murray takes the point, but the equation for ACWS is still driven by the dollar rather than sentiment.

'We would like to work with the teams and support the venues of the teams, if we can. But there is a key requirement; we need the money to go there. Ideally you’d like to support the teams in their own country, but of course it has to have the facilities, and maybe the magical Fremantle touch of guaranteed wind – which is important too.

Focus on San Francisco
A recent re-organisation of America’s Cup Regatta Management’s functions, and the America’s Cup Event Authority, has seen ACRM, headed by Murray take an expanded role.

'We have taken over the AC World Series logistically,' he explains.'With Club 45, we’ll manage the logistics side, and the Event Authority will use that facility for their guest program.

'We’ve taken over the superyacht program – not that it is relevant to the AC45’s - and will look at what really needs to happen and co-ordinate that.

'Probably the biggest task is sorting out what needs to happen with San Francisco and the build out. With environmental building permits there is a substantial amount of work that has to happen like the upgrade of the piers, construction of the new terminal, the responsibility for that is now with us.

'We have a big team working in San Francisco. But it is going to need a lot more of my time there, but it is relevant to my experience in marine development,' he notes.

The teams seem to better pleased with the changes in the organisation made to the responsibilities of ACEA and ACRM, and the attendant tune up of functionality.

'ACEA’s mission has been narrowed to commercial matters', Murray explains. 'It is still their responsibility to raise the funds, and deal with the venues and the like. That all goes back to the underlying premises of the Protocol, signed between Mascalzone Latino and Golden Gate YC in the first instance.'

The next three months will see the nine teams split before re-assembling in Naples in early April.

'Oracle Racing’s boats have gone to San Francisco, Emirates Team NZ’s have gone back to NZ, where they will train with Luna Rossa.

'All the other equipment has gone to Valencia. Artemis now have two boats and will be sailing those.

'We had been in two minds as to where to take the ship, but in the end it was Valencia because most of the teams were already there, and it’s a great facility.'

Another Competitors Forum is scheduled to be held in Auckland at the end of January, and practice racing between the Italian and New Zealand teams will take place in Auckland in February and March.

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