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How to save the America's Cup

by Vincenzo Onorato on 27 Mar 2008
Vincenzo Onorato, owner of Mascalzone Latino . ©
I have received numerous requests to intervene, also in the light of the ruling passed by New York Supreme Court. Over the past few years I believe I have been quite restrained in commenting on the difficulties facing the Cup. You'll have noticed that I wrote Cup with a capital 'C', and this is indicative of my respect and my passion for sailing and for the America's Cup in particular. We undoubtedly now find ourselves in extremely choppy waters, and it is therefore important to chart our position before plotting our course.

The whole problem stems from the protocol drawn up by Alinghi for the 33rd America's Cup which was presented at the end of the regattas in Valencia. This affirmation might appear a trite observation but, as time has passed, I have become increasingly convinced that very few people, including journalists have taken the trouble of reading this document.

Whoever has done so with a minimum of attention, but with a sense of humour, will not have been able to hold back a smile, because this is a document designed to regulate a competition which totally lacks any sense of fair play: Alinghi claims the right to choose, at its sole discretion, the regatta judges, the committee, the umpires and themeasurers, even going so far as to state that they must be its employees; in short, it unilaterally lays down the rules of the game. Alinghi, again at its sole discretion, claims the right to accept a challenge or to penalise a rival.

There were some who realised this immediately: it was immediately challenged by the seven teams who, a few days after the protocol had been published, signed a letter of objection (Oracle, Mascalzone Latino, Team New Zealand, Germany, Victory, K-Challenge, Luna Rossa); it was challenged by the historic sponsor of the challenger selection series, Louis Vuitton, who announced, in a press release dated 13 July 2007, its withdrawal on the grounds that it did not agree with the rules for the 33rd Cup.

To underline Alinghi's complete lack of respect for the role of 'trustee', as sanctioned by the 'Deed of Gift', the central document on which the regulatory framework of the event is based, it elected as 'Challenger of Record' the Spanish Nautical Yacht Club, a non-existent club with no history or members, essentially a sleeping partner that would have given it complete and unconditional control of the event. Alinghi's team worked hard in the aftermath of Oracle's legal action brought before the Supreme Court of New York to cry scandal and present itself to the whole world as the poor victims attacked by the American bear which had in effect blocked the event by bringing it before the courts. It is worth dispelling any misconceptions on this point: the Cup was effectively brought before the Court by Alinghi, with its ignominously unsporting protocol. Oracle's legal challenge was a courageous salvage operation of the oldest sports trophy in known history. This explains why, here at Mascalzone Latino, we supported Oracle at the Supreme Court of New York with our 'amicus brief'.

Alinghi's media-oriented defence was to state that the other challengers, including Team New Zealand, had been ready to accept the protocol. Today, after the action filed by Team New Zealand, what we already knew has come to light: Alinghi took advantage of the extremely weak economic position in which most of the teams found themselves to impose its own will. It promised cash to Team New Zealand in the form of waiving registration fees and even going so far as to offer an option on Oracle's base!

To sum up, Alinghi's plan was to control the Cup and its challengers in order to guarantee its subsidiary, ACM total economic control of the event. In this context, Alinghi's terse comments seem completely superfluous when it recalled how, in the past, it was the Americans who created the culture of the defender's privilege. The actions taken by the American defenders were childish attempts compared to the complex plot woven above all by Alinghi. The Americans from New York Yacht Club were motivated solely by a deep sense of pride and privilege in keeping the Cup in the States, not for base economic motives!

This brings us to the second aspect of this affair, the economic and commercial side. It is my opinion that the money offered by sponsors should be used to fund the event. I keep my work, which brings in my bread and butter, separate from sailing and I believe that the other businessmen leading the syndicates should do the same. Therefore, I do not agree with Alinghi's avidity, which unfortunately is not even backed by an intelligent commercial strategy.

One particular detail has escaped most people: Louis Vuitton decided to back out of the Cup before and not after the legal action brought by Oracle before the Supreme Court of New York. When I think of the America's Cup, I automatically think of the Louis Vuitton Cup. The two are inseparable, not only blending tradition but also class and culture.

They backed out and walked away, on tiptoe, with the good breeding characteristic of those who work for the French company. Given that I had the pleasure of meeting them, I know how much it cost them to abandon the event, the selection of the official challenger, to which only their brand and no other had succeeded in giving such a profound sense of identity.

Incompatibility with Mr Bertarelli's vision. This was the gist of the brief comments they made. Losing Louis Vuitton is further proof of the total lack of culture and respect for tradition shown by the top management of Alinghi in handling this event. Above all and paradoxically, it is an intellectual shortfall without precedent in the Cup's history. As if that were not enough, it is also an irreparable error of marketing: the Cup today is an enormous industry funded by major sponsors and a few tycoons. It is an enormous engine driven - in media terms - by glamour, status and tradition. Losing Vuitton has created a culture of suspicion among the sponsors and Alinghi's decision to take the Cup to court has effectively brought this enormous engine to a halt.

Let's come back to the story and to the work I have done in the past few months, since the end of the Cup. I spent the entire summer of 2007 in a vain attempt to broker a settlement between Oracle and Alinghi. I knew that a sure-fire way of losing all the sponsors was to take the Cup to court and I wanted to avoid this.I established contacts with Oracle in order to discuss our points of view. Contrary to Alinghi's declarations, I found Russell Coutts very willing to talk.

Oracle's primary motivation was the same as Mascalzone Latino's: to achieve an honest and reliable competition. So I drafted a protocol that broadly speaking included the same rules that governed the 32nd Cup, specifying that, in order to cut costs, the same yachts would be used as in the last event and the use of the new 90ft A.C. class would be postponed until the 34th Cup. In the meantime, the challengers would jointly draw up the new class rules, which would not give such unfair advantages to the defender. I obtained - I have to confess, to my great personal satisfaction - an informal guarantee from Oracle that if my draft protocol was accepted by Alinghi, they would immediately withdraw their legal action pending before the New York Supreme Court. The Cup would be saved, and also the date of the event and the economic interests of the city of Valencia. Then I presented the protocol to Alinghi, who did not even have the good manners to reply with a 'no thanks, we're not interested.'

In the autumn, Oracle proved all too ready to negotiate with Alinghi, to the point of accepting almost all the points imposed in the much discussed protocol, only to be turned down again with a scornful refusal.

At Mascalzone Latino, although we had not been summoned to appear before the Supreme Court, we joined the proceedings and presented
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