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San Francisco poured millions into the event in hopes of catching crumbs off the table of a megalomaniacal billionaire. New Zealand, meanwhile, directly subsidized its yachting team with government funds, buying something akin to partial ownership of the product. These were calculated risks. Neither may pay off.
When Ellison first seized the Cup in 2010, one of his initial pronouncements was that yachting must become a state-of-the-art television experience. To his credit, he made it happen. And the San Francisco America's Cup became a reality television show.
From the beginning, the relationship between Team Ellison and San Francisco was asymmetrical. City officials — particularly Newsom, still smarting over the San Francisco 49ers decamping south rather than acquiescing to his demands to erect a stadium atop a radioactive Superfund site — were tantalized by the vision of 15 or more yachting syndicates pumping $368 million into the local economy. The America's Cup impact report produced by Beacon Economics and the Bay Area Council Economic Institute foresaw a $1.4 billion boon, generating 8,840 "jobs," and catering to upwards of 2.6 million visitors.
With the benefit of hindsight, these numbers appear to have oozed out of a fever dream. Despite their increasing divergence from reality, they were, for years, dutifully regurgitated by San Francisco political leaders. Supervisor David Chiu printed them on his mayoral campaign fliers. Mayor Ed Lee, as recently as last year, was still saying he expected 500,000 visitors a day — 10 times more than actually showed up for key weekend races in lovely weather. Lee also dutifully disgorged the 8,840 jobs figure, despite the fact that more than a quarter of those jobs were to have been spawned by the 15 sailing syndicates — and either ignoring or not comprehending that the report measured "work" being generated, not the "jobs" required to do it.
So, that's what floated San Francisco's boat. Team Ellison, however, was fixated on San Francisco for other reasons. The bay's winds are comparatively predictable: "They turn on every day at noon," quips former America's Cup sailor Bob "Buddha" Billingham. Reliable wind is a must for the made-for-TV Cup. And, for the first televised, near-shore regatta, it was important the shore be telegenic. "The cameras love San Francisco," says international sailor and author Kimball Livingston. "There's no better place to film."
The city was merely required to serve as municipal arm candy and look pretty in the background — a task it filled most ably. In the foreground, meanwhile, amazing new boats were conceived to wow the TV viewer weaned on NASCAR collisions and skull-splitting NFL action. The AC72 catamarans developed for the made-for-TV Cup are as tall as a 13-story building and move at freeway speeds. Their imposing, futuristic appearance leaves one wondering if they'll transform into a robot; in a sense, they already have. The bionic vessels are larded with cameras, sensors, and high-tech gadgetry providing unprecedented access to the television viewer — or anyone who downloads the America's Cup iPad app. "They are stunning. I feel privileged to have experienced them," says Stan Honey, the technological wizard behind the glowing football first-down marker — who, backed with boatloads of Ellison dollars, devised the scintillating graphics transforming the billionaire's dream into televised reality. "Part of the story on TV is the spectacular look of these boats."
So, the made-for-TV AC72s made the made-for-TV Cup. But they unmade it as well.
The boats are, as Team Artemis can attest, mercurial and dangerous. Distraught crewmembers described them to The New Zealand Herald as "God-forsaken deathtraps."
These deathtraps don't come cheap: Artemis sank upwards of $100 million into the vessel it raced only a handful of times. As recently as three months ago, says sailing expert and consultant Norman Davant, Oracle design executive Dirk Kramers told him its boat could not rise up on its foils while traveling upwind. This month, it regularly foiled upwind at speeds exceeding 30 knots. Actually, the boats weren't designed to foil at all — yet the Kiwis figured out a way to do it, and everyone was forced to follow suit. Crucially, over the course of one September week, strategic and material tweaks Oracle made to its vessel in the finals transformed it from a hopeless also-ran to, far and away, the best boat on the bay.
The AC72s are the bumblebees of the nautical world; they seem to be sailing beyond their designed abilities. They are as mysterious as they are fast. Pouring more than $100 million into such an amorphous and volatile toy is not for everyone. In fact, it's for hardly anyone. A great and terrible boat with a price tag to match worked for Ellison. But it did not work for San Francisco.
The needs of the billionaire and the city diverged.
The city suffered.
The America's Cup is one of the least egalitarian sporting competitions on the planet. The winners choose the host venues and craft the rules to suit themselves, and wealthy syndicate-owners can, intuitively, buy better boats. The sums thrown around by Ellison and his billionaire cohorts are a shade greater than those expended in the past. The ceiling has been raised, just a bit. "But the floor has come up! They didn't anticipate the boats would be so crazy," explains Davant. "The boats have become so sophisticated, there's no way a small-time team can get involved via a $20 million campaign." So, the dozens of free-spending syndicates promised by the economic impact report and its acolytes saved their money and stayed home. So did their fans. Cup organizers' head counts put actual attendance at around one-third the predicted numbers.
If more modest boats had been designated for the Cup, "it would have been a smash hit," says Richard Spindler, the founder and publisher of sailing magazine Latitude 38. "You'd have had to chase entries away. Lack of participation and competition were problems one, two, and three."
Such boats wouldn't have crumbled on the bay in routine conditions. And they wouldn't have required the resultant strict wind limits, which nixed numerous America's Cup races. Three races were abandoned with New Zealand leading, and the delays drew out the event interminably — casting a shadow of farce upon one of sports' most astonishing comebacks. (Those delays did, however, aid the city's bottom-line by forcing yachting fans and media to stick around).