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America's Cup: Stars & Stripes challenges California

by Richard Gladwell Sail-World NZ 7 Jun 2019 20:55 PDT 8 June 2019
Starts and Stripes Team USA racing their GC32 © Matt Knighton

With just over 18 months left until the start of the 2021 America’s Cup, Stars + Stripes Team USA’s focus now is to lock in corporate and individual support to ensure that the team from Long Beach Yacht Club is more than competitive in Auckland.

“Is there an individual who wants to support a team based on diversity and inclusion and be competitive on the world stage? Is there a big American brand that is going to join in with Stars + Stripes Team USA and help us take on the big teams?” acting CEO Mike Buckley asks.

His push, along with co-founder and helmsman Taylor Canfield is to garner support to get a new team established in the America's Cup, and for there to be five Challengers instead of just the original three so-called “Super Teams”.

Stars + Stripes campaign will also give the West Coast of USA a team at the top level of the sport, and indeed in any international sport, lifting the profile of sailing both for existing fans, but also reaching deep into mainstream sport and business.

“We respect all the teams a great deal. Everybody involved in the AC is so smart with endless resource’s”, Buckley explains. “There’s no question that we are the underdog, and we’re ok with that. We have been the underdog in races in the past and that has turned out in our favour”.

“Right now, it’s a question of who is going to step up and get a second team established for America, and show the world what American talent, technology, and hard work is all about.”

“What American brand wants to be part of this team from start to finish? There is an incredible story to be told”

“There’s no doubt that the 36th America’s Cup will be better with more teams in it. We are confident someone will stand up and join our team to ensure we are competitive in Auckland.”

Deadline less of an issue

For Stars + Stripes Team USA, the deadline of July 1, 2019 to confirm their entry in the 2021 America’s Cup regatta is not a big issue.

“The deadline of July 1 is important”, says Buckley. “but for us it is a race to get the boat completed on time and getting the funding we need to be able to do that. That is the date that really affects us, and we hope that date comes sooner than July 1st.”

Buckley differentiates the West Coast USA challenger from the two other Late Entry teams (of which the Maltese challenge has been withdrawn).

“Sure, we submitted our Notice of Challenge just before the entry deadline, along with several other teams. But we have paid the $1million entry fee. We have paid our preliminary design fees. We’ve started building a boat. We’re very different from the other Late Entry teams. We support those teams, we want them there, the more the merrier. Buckley told Sail-World speaking from Los Angeles.

Earlier in 2019 the team called a time-out, with some changes in management and team structure. Fortuitously a couple of other breaks came their way ensuring that no real time was lost as the Stars + Stripes team changed gears.

“We have re-organized a lot of our management, the founders of the team have re-taken control and have made sure that we stay moving in the direction that we originally set”, Buckley explains having retaken the reigns as acting CEO. His team co-founder, Taylor Canfield remains as Helmsman.

“We have shifted our primary focus to individual fundraising as well as corporate partnerships. We think we are really close on the corporate side, and have some fascinating conversations taking place. One in particular could really give us a competitive advantage from a technology perspective, which we are really excited about.”

“Obviously there is still plenty of uncertainty, but as I said when we first launched the hardest thing about an America’s Cup team is finding the money, and that has proven to be true - but we knew that from the get-go.”

A new group of around ten people, including some who have been involved all along, are on SSTUSA sponsorship and fundraising team. “That is what I am spending 100% of my time on, right now,” Buckley explains.

“We are currently on a roadshow around the USA. One thing is clear is that people love our story, they love the culture we have created and love the vision of an inclusive team. We are getting women involved as well as having [racial] diversity. The big thing for us is to keep it All-American.”

Buckley says there is plenty of talent in the USA to be able to field a full US-national team and says that any competing country would like to be able to think the same of their America’s Cup team.

Boat construction well advanced

To date the Stars + Stripes AC75 is the only one of the five AC75’s under construction to have released images taken during the build process.

That shot was taken on January 17, and a lot more progress has been made since.

“The boat is about halfway through construction - at the construction phase that the hull is still upside down, while the deck is the right-side up,” he says.

“We started our boat build in November last year, and the group worked through the holidays non-stop to get a jump-start. We had to do that to get our slot in the CNC [milling] machine. That was an epic effort on behalf of our group.

“We are now about halfway through the build - but slowed that because we have to make sure that we have the right title sponsor, and the right group of backers to get us to the finish line - and to give us a shot to go and win this thing.”

ACWS Postponement a time bonus

“Is there an individual who wants to support a team based on diversity and inclusion and be competitive on the world stage? Is there a big American brand that is going to join in with Stars + Stripes Team USA and help us take on the big teams?<

The postponement of the first of the America’s Cup World Series events, scheduled for October 2019, also meant that stalling the building program for a one-boat team, would allow more design development to be undertaken. America’s Cup teams have historically left their build programs as late as possible - and the ACWS postponement is a bonus for Stars + Stripes Team USA.

“We were in a bit of a difficult position coming in on the back end of the entry period, on November 30, but the ACWS postponement certainly worked again to our advantage.

“We have been following behind Emirates Team NZ in their build program, and they have certainly been very gracious with the help they give us.”

“The other teams would probably have held up starting the build on their boats if they knew they didn’t have to be on the ACWS starting line until April 2020.”

“The late arrival of the foil arms was also a gift,” adds Buckley, “as no-one is sailing right now [and not expected to do so until August].”

The sailing we have been doing is on Foiling Moths and GC32’s.

Buckley says about half the sailing crew have been recruited. “We have taken about 60 people through our training camps. They have come from different sports, and we haven’t restricted ourselves to just active racing sailors.

“Our plan is to build our team slowly. I think it is a mistake to be choosing too many of your people for a race that is 18 months away. Obviously locking down a few key people is great, but we want to make sure we have the best athletes.

“Other teams have tried out some of the athletes that showed up to our trials. People who were completely unknown in the sailing space [before working with S&STUSA]. That is pretty cool for us, as is women getting the opportunity to be part of our team.”

“No-one knows quite how these boats are going to sail and what the roles will be. We have a good idea - but it is always a little different once you get sailing,” he adds.

Positive response

“The response we have got to our team story and aspiration, from the start, has been exceptional. I had no idea how positive the reaction would be from the sailing community on the West Coast - and also from the non-sailing community.”

“It has been the most overwhelming thing I have dealt with in my life. It is so great. And then on the other hand it creates pressure as we know we just can’t let these people down.”

“We certainly need more people to get behind what we are doing. We have also had amazing support from Long Beach Yacht Club, individuals in New York and the Mid-West, but we are definitely looking for more partners. We think we are close to finding some, but we’re always looking for more.”

“We have also had some amazing suppliers who have been very generous towards us There has certainly been no shortage of support - particularly from the US marine industry. They are people wanting to get behind us and see Stars + Stripes succeed again.”

“It takes time on the corporate side to put the sponsorships together. They are all big dollar packages and it just takes time.”

Launch in the Fall

If the team were able to go full ahead now, that would mean that SSTUSA would launch in late October/early November. “We know that we can be ready for the first ACWS event at the end of April 2020, In Cagliari. But we also know that time is of the essence. You can never get time back. You can make or raise more money, but you can never get time back. We are in a race against time,” he emphasizes.

“But with our partnerships, and having the ETNZ design package, it is not as though we are standing still.”

Another edge for SSTUSA will be watching the other teams sail their first AC75’s, while SSTUSA’s design and boat can still be modified.

“We’ll be there to watch the other boats - even if it is just learning how to launch the AC75’s into the water and get them off the dock and return. Hopefully when we come to launch our boat we will have learned from the experience of other teams.”

Commitment before spend

Buckley says the team’s approach with sponsorship and fundraising is to get to a level of commitment where they know they can get to the finish of the campaign, before they start spending.

He points to the DNA of Emirates Team New Zealand and how the America’s Cup champions have competed “the hard way, for so many years, on small budgets with a small country.”

“We are trying to emulate that culture. It sure isn’t easy. Full credit the Kiwis for doing it for so long.”

“Our design development never stalled while we re-organized, because of the Team New Zealand design package.

“We think we have picked the right team in which to make that investment - given that they wrote the Rule, and won the last America’s Cup. Our design team is learning as much as they can from ETNZ, so that in the next Cup, AC37, we are running on our own.”

“That is the beauty of the relationship - with ETNZ promoting this event and trying to get more teams involved, doesn’t require us to have a 25-40 person design staff. That was never in our cards.”

“At some stage the relationship will evolve, and we will have our own people to make design decisions. Design packages are nothing new in the America’s Cup, and others over the years have had great relationships and that is what we intend to do.”

Changes in management team

“Chris Groobey is our new Chief Operating Officer. He has become an amazing adviser of mine and to the team. He brings a great deal of corporate experience, his background is corporate law, and he happens to be an avid sailor. He is somebody who really believed in what we are doing and came on at the perfect time, we are lucky to have him.

“He was on board before we transitioned our management and stayed through.”

Questioned as to whether Groobey was full-time with the team, Buckley responds with a laugh saying: “more like fulltime and a half. We all seem to be fulltime and a half at the moment!”

“This is more than a job to any of us. It is something that we have to do to inspire the next generation of people and kids who are coming up through our sport.”

“Maz McWilliams is our Creative Director, he is new to the team. We wanted him to work with the team for quite a while and he took over as Creative Director just over two months ago. He has done some very cool work on our social channels. He is a brilliant guy and is excited about the vision and understands how to get the messaging out.”

As part of the restructuring the team announced it was forming a Board. Buckley says about half come from Long Beach Yacht Club and the other four are from major businesses in USA.

“They are very recognizable names”, he claims, “people who have made exceptional achievements in their industries. They aren’t necessarily sailors; however, some are. We felt it was really important to have a sounding board and get advice from people who have worked with start-ups and have worked in media. We are fortunate to have those people working with us and will be announcing that Board shortly.”

“It has been amazing to work with our Board, and the fact that they are willing to take time out of their day and their lives to help us is really special. In due time we will announce a new CEO [replacing Mike Buckley] it made sense to make sure that we had control of the team. My goal is to win the America’s Cup on the water, with Taylor and we are looking forward to announcing a CEO shortly.”

“What a great thing it would be for American sailing for a second team to come down to Auckland and go against the world’s best in the hardest barrier-to-entry sport there is - the America’s Cup?”

“I think we’re good for the sport. There needs to be more America’s Cup teams so there is more trickle down for the rest of the sport,” he says as a retort to those who are quick to discount the remaining two Late Challengers.

“Look at what Dennis Conner did back in the day. He did that because he had an authentic American story and he had a huge following and that is still trickling down 30 years later.”

“We want to be corporately facing and consumer facing which is how the original Stars & Stripes campaigns were run, and that is why they were so successful. Dennis treated his campaigns like a professional sports team. I do believe that is the fundamental point of difference with our team - as that is how we intend to do things as well.”

“We want to tell the story of a team that started from nothing and made America proud as we showcased American talent and technology in the oldest trophy in international sport.”

“And we want to be able to tell that story for the next 20 years.”

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