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America's Cup boils over with two leading Challengers set to walk away

by Richard Gladwell, on 27 Mar 2015
Luna Rossa digs in during the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals ACEA - Photo Gilles Martin-Raget
The America's Cup boiled over on Thursday March 26, 2015 (US Time) with a split between two of the senior teams in the 35th America's Cup, and the commercial and marketing arm of the Cup Defender Golden Gate Yacht Club.

The series of plays was triggered by a statement from the Luna Rossa Challenge that they would consider withdrawing from the 35th America's Cup if there were a change to the class of boat to be used, which was announced and agreed in June 2014.

Emirates Team New Zealand backed the Italian position by a message in social media today, for the same reasoning - that teams had progressed too far down the AC62 design and planning path to switch to a smaller boat.

After that position was put into social media, the Commercial Commissioner for the America's Cup, Dr/General Harvey Schiller responded by pulling an agreement that was in the hands of Emirates Team New Zealand confirming that the America's Cup Qualifier would be held in Auckland.

That was the first shot from the decorated former US Air Force combat pilot. The second came when US media were contacted by ACEA and comment was made in the US media on the strike.

Top US based America's Cup correspondent, Bernie Wilson, writing in San Diego for the Associated Press reported:

A few hours later America's Cup Commercial Commissioner Harvey Schiller notified Team New Zealand that a qualifying regatta in early 2017 will not be awarded to Auckland.

While there were a number of reasons, Schiller told The Associated Press the biggest was Team New Zealand 'bouncing back and forth on support' for the unprecedented mid-course downsizing.

Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton told the AP he felt that was a negotiating ploy. However, Team New Zealand's government funding is triggered by economic value, including an Auckland regatta.

Asked if that could be the end of the Kiwi team, Dalton said he wants to wait and see how next week plays out.

Organizers said Wednesday that changes are being drafted, and teams will be asked to vote early next week.

Dalton said that while the Kiwis support cost reduction, they're 'completely in line with Prada' and feel any decision on boat downsizing should be unanimous.

Dalton has sparred in recent years with Russell Coutts, a fellow Kiwi, who is both CEO of Oracle Team USA and director of the America's Cup Event Authority.

Asked about the chance Team New Zealand could be forced to drop out, Coutts said: 'We've got everyone's interests to consider, not just one team.'

It wasn't clear what size boat America's Cup organizers want. Schiller said it was his impression it would be 'strictly the enhanced 45s.'

However, Coutts said the length hasn't been determined.

For the full story from Bernie Wilson click here

Emirates Team New Zealand were caught by surprise by Schiller, who a week earlier had said 'as commercial commissioner I don’t care who wins. I told that to the teams – there will always be a winner but I can’t show favouritism to any team, my job is to enhance everything they do.'

For once the beleaguered Kiwi team had timing on their side with the ANZAC nations preparing for the Battle of all Battles in the Final of the Cricket World Cup. Aside from opening the evening TV news bulletins, the NZ media did not progress the story further.

Faced with a hot-story line, but no real content, and both ran a 90 second clip from Team NZ CEO Grant Dalton, deftly put out by the Team, just before the TV news deadlines, which got the Team's message across better than a paid advertisement. With an embarrassing by-Election defeat looming, the National Government wasn't too interested either, and Schiller's heat-seeking missiles largely missed their target.

But of course the lines have been clearly drawn for what could be an apocalyptic Competitors Meeting early next week. It is a battle from which ACEA can only emerge as the loser. Their key objective must now be to minimise the damage.

Late Friday afternoon (NZT) Emirates Team New Zealand released a short video where Team CEO, Grant Dalton said that the team supported the position taken by Luna Rossa, because they believed it was too late to make a change to the boat and the rules, unless all teams agreed.

In the video, Dalton said that last Saturday the teams were presented with two deals by ACEA - the first to reduce the boats to AC45's - being 45ft wingsailed, foiling catamarans which would reduce costs, and have no Qualifier in Auckland which might further reduce costs for teams. Or, they could stay with the AC62 that had been agreed in the Protocol and have a Qualifier Series sailed in Auckland. In other words remain with the status quo.

Late on Thursday Luna Rossa, who had not been the most enthusiastic supporter of a Qualifier series in Auckland, came out with a statement saying they favoured remaining with the AC62. Emirates Team New Zealand said they supported that same position for the same reasons as the Italians.

The matter was expected to be resolved by the teams in a meeting to be held next Tuesday. However in a seemingly petulant and pre-emptive move the ACEA Commercial Commissioner pulled the Qualifier Series from Auckland.

Now the 35th America's Cup appears to be on a course to go ahead in Bermuda, without two of the most significant Challengers - Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand, unless cooler heads prevail within the Cup organisation.

Luna Rossa is the Challenger of Record for the 35th America's Cup and was the Challenger in the 2000 America's Cup in Auckland, they have sailed in every America's Cup Regatta since (aside from the 2010 Match). They are based in Cagliari, Italy and have a staff of over 80 people and are probably the most highly geared team of the six entrants.

Emirates Team New Zealand are twice winners of the America's Cup, and with one exception have sailed in every America's Cup Match since 1987 (2010 also excluded). They are the longest standing team in America's Cup history and are arguably the most successful professional sailing team in the world.

The loss of both teams, should ACEA maintain its current stance, would weaken the 35th America's Cup to a point where it would be a massive blow to the credibility and stature of the event - along with the loss of very significant TV audiences in Italy and New Zealand.

The move by Schiller was the lead item in the prime time news on both TV channels in New Zealand but was treated with a degree of incredulity by presenters. The NZ Government would not be drawn on the funding issue when questioned on the latest development.

The co-lateral damage from Schiller's attack will be to lose two of the biggest TV audiences if Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand walk away from the 35th America's Cup. The 34th America's Cup drew the biggest ever TV viewership in New Zealand history, with 25% of the total population - or over 1 million viewers watching mid-series. Italy has produced equally impressive TV audiences when the Luna Rossa team are performing at their best - and the Italians are easily the most patriotic TV audience of the European Challengers.

In the coming days, Larry Ellison's words could come back to haunt him from the Final Media Conference at the end of the 34th America's Cup.

When the prospect of Team New Zealand not competing at the next America's Cup was raised, Ellison's response was that: 'An America's Cup without New Zealand? It is just impossible to conceive of that.'

Ironically the impossible could well become the possible by the hasty actions of his team.

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