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NYYC drives conversation about future of America’s Cup

December 11, 2020 GMT

The four teams entered in the 36th America’s Cup have yet to pit their fantastical-looking boats against one another and the New York Yacht Club is already pondering the future of sailing’s marquee regatta.

With a preliminary regatta just days away in Auckland, New Zealand, the NYYC hosted a Zoom call involving some 30 yacht clubs and stakeholders on Monday to discuss ways to try to achieve more continuity in a competition that has changed dramatically since 1983. That’s when an Australian crew ended the NYYC’s 132-year winning streak in the competition for the oldest trophy in international sports.

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The usual topics were discussed, most notably the exorbitant costs that have limited the number of participating yacht clubs. Other topics included the unpredictability of schedules and location, which impacts the ability to attract corporate sponsors; plummeting TV viewership; stricter nationality rules and balancing technology with sailing skills.

Christopher Culver, who became the NYYC’s commodore on Thursday, said the club — back in the America’s Cup for the first time in nearly 20 years — had been asked by a number of parties to use its position as the original holder of the America’s Cup to drive the conversation on improving the event.

The New York Yacht Club “is the true voice of authenticity when it comes to the America’s Cup. It’s in our DNA,” Culver said in a phone interview. “It was time for us to use that voice of authenticity to say not necessarily what we would do if we win, but what would we do collaboratively to change and to create sustainability. This isn’t about just what we would do if we win or what Luna Rossa or INEOS or Emirates would do when they win, but rather what could we come together and agree on to help advise, counsel and help steer the next defender.”

Culver believes the group found common ground during the 2-hour call.

“The stakeholders in general believe the cost of the America’s Cup prohibit the future growth of the Cup. We’re looking to create an opportunity and a dialogue where we can reduce the cost to increase greater participation,” he said.

Governed by the 19th century Deed of Gift, the America’s Cup is unique in that the winning yacht club becomes the trustee and, with input from the Challenger of Record, outlines the terms of the next regatta, including picking the location and class of boat.

That idiosyncrasy is often a drawback because there can be long gaps between regattas, particularly when the trophy changes hands. That can kill interest that might have been stirred with mainstream sports fans.

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After Emirates Team New Zealand routed Oracle Team USA in June 2017 in Bermuda, it ditched the foiling 50-foot catamarans used in just that one regatta and switched to a new class of radical 75-foot foiling monohulls. It was the sixth time since 1983 that the trophy changed hands. Excluding the 90-foot giants used in a one-off in 2010 as the result of a bitter court case, the foiling 75-footer will be the fifth different class of boat used since 1987, which was the end of the venerable 12-meter era.

Designing and building boats is one of the biggest costs for teams. Culver said sticking with the same class of boat is one key to holding down costs. He also said there was talk of a budget cap at $50 million. It’s estimated that each syndicate in the 36th America’s Cup will spend well more than $100 million.

Such staggering budgets keep participation low.

Only three challengers will compete for the right to face Emirates Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup match in March: The NYYC’s American Magic, Sir Ben Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team of Italy.

There were five challengers in Bermuda in 2017 and three in San Francisco in 2013.

Many consider the 1986-87 regatta to be the height of the modern America’s Cup, when 13 syndicates entered the challenger series in Fremantle, Australia. Dramatic images of Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes pounding through the waves en route to winning back the Cup he had lost in 1983 helped ESPN draw boffo ratings, even though the races were in the middle of the night in America.

During Oracle Team USA’s dramatic comeback in 2013 on San Francisco Bay, viewership was barely a blip since most Americans had no idea where to watch it.

Ultimately, change will depend on who wins the Cup. It’s rare that teams lose their first defense, and Emirates Team New Zealand is always formidable.

Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron commodore Aaron Young was on the NYYC’s call. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Malin Burnham, an America’s Cup Hall of Famer from San Diego who was on the call, said there is interest in improving the competition.

Burnham, who was involved in Dennis Conner’s winning campaigns in 1987 and 1988, said he believes New York Yacht Club “has to win this thing in order to control it. Hopefully they can negotiate with the challenger of record to give them two cycles to give them time to do a real change.”

The America’s Cup World Series and Christmas Race will be held Dec. 17-20. The Prada Cup for challengers is Jan. 15-Feb. 22, with the winner facing the Kiwis in the America’s Cup match March 6-21.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson