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Has the Auld Mug lost its shine?

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 30 Jul 2015
BAR - ACWS TeamOrigin http://www.originsailing.com
Let’s face it: Americans can be a tough audience to please. Irrespective of whether we’re talking about politics, sports or even economic policy, everyone seems to have their own ideas and is usually perfectly content to burrow deep in order to defend their favorite players, their favorite team, or their favorite ideology. In short, you know that you have created something truly special when seemingly the entire country rallies behind an event, for example, the 34th America’s Cup, which took place in San Francisco in September of 2013.

From the get-go, the table was set for audiences to love the racing: a superb venue, fantastic racing conditions, extreme yachts, and some of the world’s best sailors. Still, most Americans could have cared less about the event until Oracle Team USA-the Defender-found themselves in hot-water with an 8-1 scoreboard deficit.



This is precisely when skipper Jimmy Spithill started his psychological warfare against his Emirates Team New Zealand counterpart, Dean Barker, during a now-infamous set of press conferences that traded more in swagger and bravado than reality. Still, the conferences had their desired effect, Spithill got under Barker’s skin, Oracle’s engineers worked around-the-clock to modify their boat, the sailors got fired up, and the Defender started winning races.

By the end of the Cup, it was almost impossible to find standing room on San Francisco’s piers to watch the racing, let alone a wine bar in the evening where the constant talk wasn’t about the Auld Mug. And this wasn’t limited to just SFO: Across the country, Americans woke up to their “underdog” (ahem) Defenders and their do-or-die fight to retain the Cup. Suddenly, even soccer moms seemed to know about foiling catamarans.



The fairytale ended perfectly, with Oracle becoming a juggernaut, winning the Cup and proving themselves the fastest team on foils.

Afterward, however, the (metaphoric) catamaran came crashing down off her foiling flight with the announcement that Bermuda’s Great Sound-not SFO-would be the racecourse for the 35th America’s Cup. Eventually, the boats shrank by 14 feet (from a proposed 62 feet to 48 feet), the number of crew required to sail the new Cuppers was similarly reduced, the nationality rule seemingly became an afterthought, several Challengers of Record foiled off in disgust, and-generally speaking-Americans fully tuned out the America’s Cup, focusing instead on partially deflated footballs and the 2016 Presidential Race.

Now, as the 2017 America’s Cup cycle starts gearing up with the first regatta of the 2015 America’s Cup World Series (ACWS), which just wrapped up in Portsmouth, Great Britain, it seems as though almost all Americans are again proving themselves to be a tough audience to please. While the United Kingdom proudly rallied behind Sir Ben Ainslie and his BAR Team, who decisively took top honors on their home waters, most Americans were unaware that the regatta even took place. Even amongst my sailing-obsessed friends, the event seems to have barely registered as more than blip on radar screens that have been otherwise filled with thoughts of Transpac, the Transatlantic Race, Great Lakes Racing, beer-can racing, and even the upcoming Rio 2016 Olympics.



So, has the magic faded from the 35th America’s Cup? For most non-sailing Americans, the answer is a confident yes; for sailors, the answer is more nuanced. Fans of the halcyon days of 12-meters racing on the waters of Narragansett Bay are likely to struggle with the new, borderline One-Design format that places almost all design emphasis on the foils and the wing-control systems, rather than on hull shape, rig design or sail development. But fans of performance sailing and pure speed will likely love the fact that-unlike “AC34”-the boats that will be used to contest AC35 are purpose-designed foilers, capable of stunning speeds and (hopefully) tactically engaging racing.

So where does this leave the Auld Mug? Larry Ellison and his Oracle Team USA likely fully understood the danger that they would be alienating large percentages of the American population by bringing the Cup to Bermuda, rather than keeping it in San Francisco, but their target audience is obviously not Silicon Valley tech geeks.



The billion-dollar question, however, is one of television viewers and sponsor ROI-two important metrics that will likely take a while to resolve. Still, an easier litmus test is to instead consider how much of your local dock talk is currently revolving around the ACWS versus talk of distance racing, casual racing, dinghy racing and outright course records, and you likely have a pretty good handle on the gravitas that the 35th Cup is currently exerting on the American imagination.

Hopefully this will change for the better, as AC34 sure was a wild ride, and one that all of my sailing friends and I (and likely even some soccer moms) would sure love to relive.

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