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On the cusp of a February 2012 Board of Supervisors vote to greenlight that potential $136 million pact, Team Ellison abruptly pulled the plug on the contentious real-estate scheme. This came "out of the blue sky," per city officials, and was not negotiated; Cup organizers at the time were faced with nonexistent sponsorship income and the huge cost of developing groundbreaking TV technology — plus, actually paying a network to televise sailing, rather than vice-versa. Half of the America's Cup Event Authority's employees were subsequently liquidated.
Members of the Board of Supervisors now tell SF Weekly that vote was in doubt — they were wary of giving away land to Ellison. This is not how City Hall operators pushing the deal recall things: "That's bullshit," states one intimately involved player. "We had the votes."
So, but for the unilateral action of Team Ellison, the city would be in hock for up to 101 years in exchange for the uncertain returns from a few weeks of boat racing. As Cup backers portray the event as an overall success in the coming weeks — it generated a fraction of the promised money and jobs, but surely generated some — it's worth keeping this in mind. "It's great the city hosted something like this. But the totality of what it took to get this?" queries a San Francisco official with deep ties to the event. "It's breathtaking. It's so uneven. It's so disproportionate. All of that — delivered this."
Even the pared-down America's Cup has been a fiscal dirge. Private fundraisers tasked to "endeavor" to offset city costs struggled mightily convincing donors to underwrite Larry Ellison's boat race. The private America's Cup Organizing Committee claims to have amassed more than $16 million — but city costs figure to be millions higher than that. Visitor-generated taxes originally pitched as padding San Francisco's bottom line have been repurposed into offsetting paltry fundraising efforts.
That meager fundraising, meanwhile, led Mayor Ed Lee to step in and start asking for favors. He got them.
It's a dicey situation when private companies or individuals, perhaps with business before the city, can contribute unlimited amounts of cash to politically preferred causes. In June, a company called Kilroy Realty gave $500,000 at Lee's behest to the America's Cup Organizing Committee — a sum dwarfing other donations. In August, the Planning Commission approved Kilroy's request to alter its already-approved plans for a highrise at 350 Mission by adding six additional stories — vastly augmenting the value of the future structure.
Department officials and development-watchers claim a mid-process modification of this magnitude — and the expediency with which it was granted — are unprecedented.
Along Fisherman's Wharf, tour-boat operators wheedle passersby to hop on and behold the America's Cup finals. When asked how the regatta has treated them, their smiles evaporate. "Lousy," says one. "Just awful," adds another. "A fucking terrible experience," spits out a third. Nearby, the ubiquitous bushman plies his trade: scaring the bejesus out of tourists by shouting from behind the foliage he carries with him. In his estimation, "There ain't as many people here as there should be." But, on the plus side, Kiwis he's terrified "take it real good."
At the America's Cup village on Marina Green, bleacher tickets cost $70, $110, or $120. That expenditure makes even less sense than the $10.50 drafts of Peroni; you can wander in front of the bleachers — and get a better vantage point of the action — for free. Not surprisingly, the bleachers are largely devoid of humanity.
The sad truth is, as an in-person spectator sport, yachting makes a great televised sport. "I have never seen so few boats watching an America's Cup," penned sailing commenter Gary Jobson on Monday on Sail-World.com. "I spoke at a local yacht club here ... I asked why more boats were not out on the bay. Several people at my table said, 'It's better watching on television.'"
The AC72s' power and grace are mitigated by distance. From the shore they resemble two ungainly cartoon sharks tracing figure-eights on the water. Without a television or iPad handy, you can't even tell who's winning. "I've been to every America's Cup since 1980, and raced boats. I understand what I'm looking at," says Livingston. And, from the shore, "I can't tell you what's going on."
But it is, unabashedly, fantastic television. The high-definition cameras emphasize the velocity of the boats and constant motion of the sailors. The graphics — which require scads of military-grade GPS equipment, a NASA-like control room, and three helicopters hovering over the course — make sense of the morass. The boats creak and groan, emitting ominous noises reminiscent of Moby-Dick breaching the Pequod.
No surprise, then, that spectators at Marina Green gravitate to the massive TVs. This leads to the odd scenario of viewers glued to the screens, watching boats clearly visible behind them. Fans are so besotted with the televisions that, during a recent race, half a dozen of them managed to absent-mindedly wander into the same mud puddle while watching the coverage. This televised spectacle, which Ellison funded lavishly to develop and purchase airtime for, garnered about 1 million American viewers in the early going. As the races grew better, however, coverage shifted to more obscure channels, cutting viewership to between 100,000 and 250,000. Sans a yacht-enamored billionaire, none of these viewership totals justifies the massive costs currently required to televise regattas. So, barring far more advertising or far lower overhead, Ellison et al. will have to be satisfied that they have created the world's greatest infomercial.
Onboard the Kiwi hospitality boat, there is palpable desperation. The Kiwis pull ahead — though you'd never know without the in-house technician and an expert race commenter — and a cacophony of hoots and shouting ensue. Hands are wrung. Talismans are fondled. Beers are stockpiled. "Come on you boys!" shrieks a woman in an All-Blacks jersey.