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Gladwell's Line- 34 America's Cup - All done by Christmas?

by Richard Gladwell on 7 May 2010
34th America’s Cup - BMW ORACLE Racing - 1st Press Conference - Russell Coutts (BOR) - Vincenzo Onorato - Happy Days BMW Oracle Racing: Guilain Grenier - copyright

The 34th America's Cup got underway in Rome just over 12 hours ago.

Launched not in a yacht club, not in the country of the Defender, not a yacht club, but in the Sala Exedra in Rome’s Musei Capitolini, surrounded by some of Italy's most precious treasures.

As Russell Coutts quipped, the America's Cup was probably the youngest artifact in the building.

Maybe this was a historic turning point in the history of the America's Cup.

What was unveiled was no real surprise and consistent with what has been said in this in!/69083!this_previous_commentary.

What was new was the time framing of the agenda - meaning the three basics of the America's Cup - the boat, the venue and the timing will be defined by 31 December 2010.

Entry will close a month later having been open for two months. That door shuts on 31 January 2011.

The necessary behind the scenes work has already begun, and the next stage will be a Designer Meeting in Valencia in a fortnight to look over the initial work done by two design groups - Bruce Nelson (USA) and Morrelli & Melvin (USA) who will come up with concepts for a new America's Cup monohull and a multihull.

Also doing homework will be a raft of teams, who have been sent a copy of the 32nd Protocol and asked to write the one they would like to see as a Challenger.

The design approach is very reminiscent of the process followed after the end of 1988 series of America's Cup Legal, a process from which was conceived the International America's Cup Class (which later dropped the 'International' from its name.

On stage, the duo of Russell Coutts (Defender) and Vincenzo Onorato (Challenger) were careful to stick to the consultative and collaborative script, a theme that ran through their approach in a number of ways.

Take the feedback on the Protocol for instance. The previous, and obvious, approach would have been to publish a draft document and invited discussion on that. Of course, the reaction to such a document is to look for the tricks and edges and push back on these points.

Those outside the innner wagon circle, would have read such a document, and tried to understand the points of advantage that the defender had grabbed, and the degree of soft and hard edges available in any subsequent negotiation.

By sending a previous 32 AC document, the hard rhetoric has turned to dust, and it is over to the Challengers to make the first move, not the Defender. Of course, that is not to say that the issues have gone away, they will have to be addressed at some stage, but not quite yet.

The areas that Coutts targeted for change were the across the board, there were no real 'Givens'.

In reality, there might not be a lot of options.

Sailing is a sport that needs wind to get underway, not a referee's whistle. You can schedule the time when a referee will blows, but not the time a breeze will arrive, and how consistent.

The Defender will say that conundrum can be solved by picking a venue that will have steady and reliable wind. Whether that happens in actuality, only God will know. But all pointers are still toward San Francisco.

Much was made of the need to pick a vibrant and exciting class. But that song has been sung before. Every Defender and Challenger group has looked at the wider options and then settled for a variation on the Devil they know, rather then the one they don't.

Same for TV, great strides have been made in the coverage since say 1983, but the reality is that the highest rating event was in Fremantle in 1987 - 23 years ago. That was a function of the conditions at the venue, the characters in the event, the off the field action, and the fact that USA was on a mission to get the Cup back. Most of these boxes can't be ticked in the current edition.

The problem with the TV is the ratings, more than the quality of the coverage. And clearly there is a big selling job to be done in the next three of four years, particularly in USA.

Maybe 3D television is part of the solution, and certainly the demonstration product that we have seen from Animation Research in Dunedin, cut from footage of the 2010 Louis Vuitton Trophy has tremendous impact. Whether that experience can be transferred to a wider audience, is yet to be determined.

As CEO of a team that has just come out of a prolonged legal and rules battle for sailing's most prestigious trophy, Coutts was keen to downplay the role the rules will have in the new America's Cup. In fact this was maybe the only real 'Given' in the discussion.

Commenting on the roomfuls of rules consultants, who spent an interminable time picking over rules interpretations and design options, Coutts was clear that sort of activity belonged in the past, and he would rather see rules advisers working with the teams, rather than working off each other.

While a laudable objective, the notion belies the fact that much of the rules consultants time is spent resolving the match racing plays, and the only way to really dumb down that sort of activity is to dumb down the match racing options. For that reason the multihull may well be the boat solution - being a type where very basic matchracing moves only apply, and the fine edged stuff is given away for speed and position off the start line.

Essentially there has to be a sea change in the way the game is played rather then a refined edition of what has gone before.

Budgets and cost cutting were on the lips of the questioners and viewers. While these were given some recognition, again the options are not that clear.

One boat or two? Defender sailing in any of the Selection Trials and Preliminaries? Working out with friendly teams? Again the sailing world has been through the options. And, whatever solution has been tried has solved some issues and created others, and certainly Rodney Rulebook has been kept in a job advising how his team can get around the regulations.

Led by the fourth richest man in the world, many will be looking to the Defender as to the limits they are going to put on their spend - and the Challengers will take their lead from there.

Again the cost reduction objective is laudable, but the practicalities are, well, challenging and will take a lot of courage from the Defender.

The great strength of Larry Ellison in this Brave New America's Cup World is how he operates as a benign dictator - because that is the role he must adopt if this deal is to work. Currently the consultation and collaboration game is being played. A game that Ellison made it clear that he would playing the nano-second he put his hands around the America's Cup.

Ellison also very cleverly leaves Russell Coutts to front the Defence operation, always leaving room for deference to Ellison and scope for a change in approach if that is what is required - without anyone really losing face.

While some would hope that an America's Cup can be run by a committee of competitors, the problem is that the objectives of the game soon become lost in a sea of consensus. Ellison has the financial clout and power as leader of the Defending team in the Cup to keep the game on track. And that he must do.

Whether Golden Gate Yacht Club try to lock in the changes remains to be seen. Coutts stayed on message making it clear that there was no agenda in this regard, adding that any changes must be up to the Challengers. However Ellison's previous lines have been that he is happy to lose the America's Cup on a level playing field - provided the field remains level when he tries to win it back. That's probably not going to happen without a change to the Deed of Gift to lock in the concessions the Defender seems prepared to make.

Giving the power of the first move to the Challengers is a very cunning ploy. It gives Ellison and his Defence and Event team the ability to pick the eyes out of the ideas put forward by the Challengers, and steer the game in a direction with which all are comfortable. For all the talk of consensus, the Defender still has half the bag of America's Cup marbles, the Challengers collectively get to play with the other half. What is being talked of now is a game of mutually acceptable parameters - to be finalised inside six months.

The key to the success of the 34th match is whether the Defender will be content, unlike the previous holder, to just play from their half bag of marbles, rather than wanting a few from the Challengers' bag as well.

To date, Ellison and Coutts seem to be happy to take a course which could be to the Defender's disadvantage, if it is in the greater benefit of the event.

That is very courageous on their part. , Coutts was clear that it was a challenge they were happy to accept.

The America's Cup family could be in for a very fruitful Christmas.

Zhik Dinghy 660x82Naiad/Oracle SupplierBakewell-White Yacht Design

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