You wouldn’t stage the Super Bowl or the Olympics without knowing where and when the next one will take place.
But the America’s Cup is very different — and has been for over 150 years.
However, this could change very soon thanks to a new agreement that could revolutionize sailing’s elite event.
Dating back to 1851, the battle for sport’s oldest trophy has been a moveable feast, with the winner earning the right to call the shots on the venue, timing and format.
It was a playground of billionaires, where controversy, intrigue and lawsuits were as much part of the drama as cutting-edge yacht design and hard-fought racing.
On one hand, that is all part of the America’s Cup’s history and mystique. The alternative view is that model doesn’t stack up in a modern commercial world.
Now though, five of the six teams competing for this year’s title in Bermuda in June have united behind what they call a “collective vision” that sets out a two-year cycle until 2021, with one set class of boat, a reduction on budgets and a raft of other rule changes.
Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill, who coined the Super Bowl analogy, said it was a “defining moment,” while Land Rover BAR’s skipper and team principal Ben Ainslie said it was “pivotal.”
“This agreement provides stability,” said Land Rover BAR chief executive Martin Whitmarsh, who has brought a wealth of experience to the competition following almost 10 years as CEO of the McLaren F1 team.
“It gives people an opportunity to plan longer term. It will establish a modern sporting, technical and design challenge within which costs are controlled to provide a much lower entry price which will encourage more teams to be involved and ultimately inspire a larger audience.”
The America’s Cup is governed by the Deed of Gift, the original protocol that dictates how the competition should run.
One of the mainstays is that the defender and principal challenger thrash out the details of the next series, including the venue and the type of boat to be used. In the past the Cup has run roughly every four years.
The teams behind the framework are America’s Cup defender Oracle Team USA, Britain’s Land Rover BAR, SoftBank Team Japan, Sweden’s Artemis Racing and Groupama Team France.
The one syndicate stalling on the arrangement is Emirates Team New Zealand, which said in a tweet — since deleted — it believes the future America’s Cup format should be decided by the defender and the challenger of record “as it has historically been.”
Whitmarsh said the framework will “respect and uphold all aspects of the Deed of Gift.” He says the Kiwis have been “kept aware of all developments” and is “optimistic” they will eventually sign up.
However, should the New Zealand syndicate not concur, and it wins the 35th America’s Cup, the framework could be redundant.
The agreement is an attempt to exploit the spectacle of modern America’s Cup catamarans “flying” above the water on hydrofoils at speeds of nearly 50 knots in short 20-minute races in front of stadium crowds and a modern TV and digital audience.
The 2013 event in San Francisco wowed spectators with its new style of high-speed foiling boats and Oracle Team USA’s dramatic fightback from 8-1 down to win 9-8.
The traditional concept of the Cup building to a crescendo and then going into “at best, radio silence” while the defender plans the next event will be a thing of the past, Whitmarsh told a news conference at the House of Garrad in London, where the America’s Cup trophy was made in 1848. It was donated to the Royal Yacht Squadron for its annual regatta three years later.
To that end, the framework proposes up to 12 World Series events to begin in late 2017, with the winner going straight to the challenger playoffs — the final race series which will determine who takes on the defender in the 2019 America’s Cup.
In the second year of World Series racing, teams will migrate from AC45F boats to America’s Cup Class boats, a variation on the 50-foot catamarans they will race in Bermuda this year, with design tweaks to broaden the wind range they can competitively race in.
To reduce costs — and entice new entrants to the competition — teams will not be able to build, test or train on AC45F boats.
“The target cost to field a competitive new team is in the $30-40 million range, a significant reduction from current team budgets,” Whitmarsh added.
Ainslie said it would mean a 50% cut in BAR’s current budget of about $90 million, although he added there was no budgetary cap.
Critics suggest standardizing the boat puts potential new teams at a disadvantage because they will lack the reams of data and experience of those already competing. Poaching experts from other teams will come at a high price.
“All the signatories to this new framework agreement appear to have done is try to secure their pay checks for another four years, at the expense of removing the prestige from the America’s Cup,” the New Zealand Herald reported.
‘On the cusp’
The “glamor” of the America’s Cup will always be there, according to Ainslie.
“Yes, the old J Class yachts were amazing, but this is a whole new audience,” he told CNN. “It’s proven this style of racing and these type of boats really work.
“As a commercial sport, that’s where we have to be. If we can’t make it work televisually we can’t build something of value.”
Sailing’s Super Bowl is “on the cusp of something very exciting,” Whitmarsh says.
At the very least, the framework adds another intriguing layer to the long history of the America’s Cup.