China America's Cup Team 美洲杯帆船赛中国之队

For friends of China's official America's Cup sailing team

Picture courtesy of Sail Racing Magazine.

It is safe to say that everyone who likes sailing will be glad to see the Swedish America’s Cup syndicate Artemis back on the water following the tragic accident that took the life of Andrew Simpson last month in San Francisco.  As a fan of many sports and a participant of sport from many angles it’s always good to see perseverance and passion triumph over adversity.

It’s hard to imagine though, based on the new schedule just released by the America’s Cup Authority, that Artemis has much chance to actually contend or win any races, at least in the early stages where they might not even have a boat at the ready.   Of course it may not matter with only three challengers competing in the Louis Vuitton Cup for the right to square off against Oracle in the America’s Cup final.  It’s basically a league where everyone makes the playoffs; the first four weeks of racing are just exhibitions.

That said, what a turn of events we’d have if Artemis could actually pull through to be the challenger.  Let’s face it; Paul Cayard, Ian Percy, Loïck Peyron and the rest of those guys on Artemis are an extremely talented lot.  If they hadn't crashed their boat and weren’t being forced to race on a new untested version, and if the America’s Cup were less about technology and more about sailors, I’d give Artemis a fighting chance to create what would be one of the most compelling sports stories this year.  But the playing field is not fair and all things are not equal.

The America’s Cup is not about the sailors, at least not this one.  It’s about the technology and it’s about the money and the trouble this has caused was foreseeable.

While no one can argue that the AC72’s are fast and exciting, especially if you happen to be racing on them, they will do little to advance the interest of the event in the eyes of the general public.  The design was chosen in large part to make the event more appealing to spectators and those watching on television, but let me tell you why it won’t work.

Television is a matter of perspective and these boats will still look slow and cumbersome racing across San Francisco Bay with only a distant skyline in the background and chopping sea in the fore.   Yeah, okay guys will be hanging on to the trampoline for all they are worth, sea spray will be ripping at their clothes, but I can get that kind of programming on the Discovery Channel while caught up in the drama around Captain Phil Harris’ kids. Sailing is just not an ideal sport for TV and the sailing industry needs to accept that, focus on the live event and all the festivities that surround it and then do the best they can on the TV side without changing the dynamics of the event to accommodate a losing proposition.

The stadium format will be a plus for spectators on the shore, but it’s not F1 or NASCAR where your whole body trembles (like the seat your sitting on) as the cars roar past.  In the early stages of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the races will last about an hour, one race a day, one day a week (at least until Artemis gets their boat going). Seriously, think about it, the average spectator will spend more time getting to and from the venue each day than actually watching the racing.  And if you’ve planned a vacation around the event, you better start thinking now about what you will do with the rest of your week.

There is no secret formula to producing a successful sporting event in the United States or anywhere else. It was summed up in three lines from a monologue on the long running US sports programs ABC’s Wide World of Sports – “The thrill of victory…. The agony of defeat… The human drama of athletic competition.” 

This America’s Cup has clearly damaged the commercial side of professional sailing and tarnished the already controversial history of the cup.  It’s unclear just how long sailing will take to recover from it, but I am sure that it will recover; there are too many people involved who really love the sport to let it fail.

There is a chance this America’s Cup could be the greatest of all time; a very slim chance.  It rests in the hope that a group of dedicated individuals, competing after the tragic loss of their teammate, trying to overcome the insurmountable odds forced upon them, can become relevant and put themselves in a position to win the oldest trophy in sports.  Everyone loves an underdog and Artemis is the ultimate underdog.  Should they find themselves facing Oracle in the America’s Cup final, well, you just watch how popular sailing becomes with the masses.

Stuart James is the former Executive Director of China Team America’s Cup Sailing and current Executive Director of WheelplusWings, a China based non-profit.  He has spent twenty-years in the sports and entertainment industry and is a frequent guest lecturer at the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, Fudan University and Shanghai University.

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