In less than two years, the America's Cup World Series has gone from a concept to an edge-of-the hull, global competition that will crown its first champion on Sunday in Newport, R.I.
Oracle Racing's Jimmy Spithill, the youngest skipper to win the America's Cup, holds a four-point lead over Team New Zealand's Dean Barker in the overall standings after five regattas.
Sunday's competition, which will include the match racing and fleet racing finals in fast 45-foot, wing-sailed catamarans, will be shown live on NBC starting at 2:30 p.m. EDT. It will be the first U.S. network broadcast of America's Cup racing since 1992.
Eight crews from six countries will compete Thursday through Sunday in Newport, which hosted racing for the America's Cup from 1930-1983. Racing on Thursday through Saturday can be viewed live on americascup.com.
This will be the fifth of six regattas in the opening season of the ACWS. Previous stops were in Portugal, England, San Diego - another former home of the America's Cup - and Venice and Naples, Italy.
Spithill thinks the ACWS - a prelude to the 34th America's Cup next year on San Francisco Bay - has exceeded expectations. A new class of boats and a fan-friendly racing format evolved after Oracle Racing, owned by Silicon Valley maverick Larry Ellison, beat Alinghi of Switzerland in 2010 following a bitter court battle that severely damaged the image of sailing's marquee regatta.
"I think a few of us thought we had the concept right, but it was really something that hadn't been done, and was on paper," Spithill said. "So, I mean, to be racing on the canals of Venice and to turn it into a TV product, which hasn't really worked in sailing before, has far exceeded expectations. To see it come off and actually have what we call spectator sailing, where huge crowds turn up and really enjoy it, and with live TV graphics, I think that's been a huge success."
"I think it's exciting that when it gets to San Francisco it will really attract a new audience," Spithill said. "At the end of the day it's great for the sport because we'll just get more and more people interested and educated about the sport."
Spithill, who was 30 when he skippered Oracle Racing's giant trimaran to victory in 2010, has 84 points in five regattas to lead Team New Zealand by four points. Sweden's Artemis Racing and its American skipper, Terry Hutchinson, are third with 71 points, followed by France's Energy Team (65), Team Korea (56) and Oracle's second team (53).
Rounding out the field are two teams from Italy's Luna Rossa, Piranha and Swordfish.
China Team is the latest syndicate to drop out, although it has said it intends to develop young sailors through the Red Bull Youth America's Cup as a bridge to a future all-Chinese America's Cup sailing team.
Oracle Racing CEO Russell Coutts returns to helm the syndicate's second boat. He skippered the boat in the first two ACWS events last year before handing the helm to double Olympic medalist Darren Bundock so he could concentrate on off-the-water duties. Coutts re-joined the crew as tactician in Venice. Bundock will resume his previous coaching role.
"Obviously it would be nice for us to win. We certainly hope that Jimmy Spithill's team wins it," said Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner.
Coutts also is pleased with the ACWS.
"I think the series is very competitive now," he said. "There's not a weak team out there. With Ben Ainslie coming in in the next event, there's another strong team."
The second season of the ACWS will begin in August on San Francisco Bay. That regatta will mark the debut of Ainslie, the British sailing star who will head Ben Ainslie Racing. Ainslie will be trying for his fourth straight Olympic gold medal in the London Games. Ainslie will sail with Oracle Racing in the 34th America's Cup. He hopes to lead a British challenge in the 35th America's Cup.
Team Korea's skipper, Nathan Outteridge of Australia, will be the gold medal favorite in the 49er skiff class at the Olympics. Oracle Racing crewmember Tom Slingsby of Australia is sitting out this regatta while training for the Olympics. He's the favorite in the Laser class.
The 34th America's Cup will be contested in 72-foot catamarans. Oracle Racing plans to launch its first 72-footer in August on San Francisco Bay.
The America's Cup recently won an Emmy for its LiveLine technology, which superimposes graphics on the screen, such as ahead-behind lines, which enable viewers to see which boat is leading, and race-course boundaries. The graphics are similar to the first-down line used in NFL broadcasts.