For the past 150-plus years, the only way to witness an America's Cup race in person has been to hop on a boat yourself. Despite being one of the world's oldest competitions—contested 33 times since 1851—the irregularly-scheduled yacht race has historically been consumed exclusively from afar, relying on whatever television coverage materializes and the antics of Oracle CEO and crazed mariner Larry Ellison for attention. A byproduct of holding the race out into the open ocean near cities such as San Diego (1988, 1992, 1995); Auckland, New Zealand (2000, 2003); and Valencia, Spain (2007, 2010) was that the sites offered nothing for live crowds to see. It wasn't a good look for a major international sporting event.
So following the conclusion of the 2010 event, the organizers set out to turn the America's Cup into a spectator sport. Stephen Barclay, the CEO of the America's Cup, says the organization was looking for three things when selecting a location for the 2013 race: A city recognized worldwide, iconic landmarks as a backdrop, and consistent wind. Plenty of cities tick off two of those requirements, but San Francisco is one of the few that went three-for-three. Its bay provided ideal boundaries for the race, with the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown's shoreline as starting and finishing lines, respectively, and ample shoreline from which onlookers could follow the action. That there's a historic prison in the background was just icing.
As laid out for the Cup, which started on Saturday, September 7th, the event features two grandstands. One is near the starting line at America’s Cup Village in Marina Green Park, and the other at the finish line at Pier 27, where fans can enjoy the America’s Cup Park—which features a temporary sound stage with racing on the big screen by day and musical acts by night—or walk to the edge of the pier to watch the race. Each venue offers commentary, stores, exhibits, and bleachers. For the first time in the Cup's 162-year history, the event is offering reserved seating, with tickets running $15 to $100.
The shore-side "natural stadium", as Barclay calls it, debuted during prelims in July, when three teams vied to take on Ellison's Oracle Team USA in the main event. Now underway, the actual America's Cup race pits the local Oracle team against New Zealand's Emirates in a best-of-17 competition. Oracle's ability to make up the ground it lost during the opening weekend, when it dropped three of four races, will determine whether the competition ends on September 12 (the earliest possible conclusion), or stretches all the way until September 21.
Working in favor of the local Oracle crew are those fans that race organizers worked so hard to attract—for as thrilling as it is for fans to be able to hear the sailors barking orders at one another as they cruise by the pier, it's doubly so for the yacht-borne athletes, who are unaccustomed to cheers. “Before, you would go by a boat for the bikinis and get a few screams,” says Oracle grinder Shannon Falcone. “Now it's cool to feel the buzz of the crowd. It adds to the performance.”
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.