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Charting New Waters

Sept. 27, 2004
Sept. 27, 2004

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Sept. 27, 2004

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Charting New Waters

In an effort to boost its profile in the sports world, the America's Cup is trying to become more fan-friendly

Peter Holmberg, a native of St. Thomas, won a silver medal in the Finn single-hander class at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and sailed aboard Dennis Conner's America's Cup challenger in 1999. Four years later he was at the helm of Larry Ellison's sleek racing yacht Oracle BMW in the Cup semifinals. Still, he says, "I never expected to make a living as a professional sailor. When I was growing up, there was no professional sailing. It wasn't like growing up wanting to be a basketball player. There was no star to shoot for."

This is an article from the Sept. 27, 2004 issue

That may soon change. With its next finals scheduled for 2007, the America's Cup is trying to become more like other professional sports, with full-time competitors, more frequent preparatory races and better television coverage--all designed to keep the sport in the public eye in the years between Cup finals. Holmberg now has a contract to sail with 2003 Cup winner Alinghi, owned by Swiss biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, through 2007. Holmberg, 43, no longer has to work in his family's real estate business to make a living year-round.

Bertarelli, Ellison and several others who own America's Cup boats are paying crews three years in advance of the 2007 races, which will be held in European waters (off Valencia, Spain) for the first time since the precursor to the event was won by a boat called America in 1851. And in a break with tradition, the owners are working together to further the best interests of the Cup and the sport.

"The Cup is the oldest trophy in international sport, but in the past the defender and the challengers didn't cooperate, didn't copromote," says Tom Ehman, chairman of the Challenger Commission, which represents the interests of Cup challengers. "It was like a Persian bazaar. No modern sports event was run like this. Larry and Ernesto said, Enough. Now we have a central organizing committee, one set of rules, one race committee, a revenue-sharing deal, one television deal. We're pinching ourselves because so far it's actually working."

More than a dozen "acts"-- regattas involving America's Cup contenders--will precede the 2007 Cup, with races held close to shore for better spectator viewing. Earlier this month in Marseilles, BMW Oracle, Alinghi and four other boats took part in the first of these, with BMW Oracle winning.

Sponsors and teams hope that one of the acts will be held in the U.S., which over the past year has hosted two well-received series of match races featuring America's Cup boats. At September 2003 races in San Francisco between Alinghi and BMW Oracle, recalls Chris Dickson, BMW Oracle's skipper and CEO, "We were tacking the boats up the city front. We were sailing so close to the piers and walls that as we tacked, people were jumping back so they didn't get hit by flying sails."

More races mean more exposure that America's Cup organizers can offer to potential sponsors. The telecommunications company Infonet is investing €20 million in Alinghi over a four-year period, and like Cup sponsors BMW, UBS and Louis Vuitton, it views the 2007 races as a prime marketing opportunity. Unlike the 2003 America's Cup in New Zealand, during which "it was very difficult to have European and U.S. businessmen take a week off to fly to Auckland," says Alex Rassey, vice president of corporate marketing for Infonet, the 2007 races will be a relatively short flight away.

With all the changes and exposure come growing pains. "Free agency is a big issue," says John Rousmaniere, who has written a book on the history of the America's Cup. Bertarelli's recent sacking of three-time Cup-winning skipper Russell Coutts was painful for both sides. Before he fired Coutts, Bertarelli agreed with Ellison on a protocol barring a crew member who had trained or sailed with one syndicate for 180 days or more from joining a rival. "If you're paying a sailor two million dollars, and he runs off for a three-million-dollar offer, everybody's price jacks up," says Rousmaniere. "The next guy will charge four million dollars."

But for sailors, such as Holmberg, the developments are positive. His four-year contract means "a seamless transition from one Cup to the next," says Holmberg. "It's more like being on a football or soccer team."

The Contenders

The Contenders

These are the top four teams racing for the 2007 America's Cup.

1. Alinghi (Switzerland)
The defending champs no longer have three-time winner Russell Coutts in charge. Can Peter Holmberg and three-time Olympic gold medalist Jochen Schuemann share the helm and keep the Cup?

2. BMW Oracle Racing (U.S.)
Larry Ellison is bound to win someday. With round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race winner John Kostecki and New Zealand's Chris Dickson in the afterguard, there's a good chance it will be 2007.

3. Emirates Team New Zealand
Winner of the 2000 title, New Zealand desperately wants the Cup back. Keeping talent from jumping ship has been a problem.

4. Luna Rossa (Italy)
The former Prada team, a serious challenger in Cups past, just signed James Spithill of Australia, the world's No. 2 match-race sailor.

COLOR PHOTOLAURENT GILLIERON/EPASHIPS AHOY Alinghi (red) and South Africa's Shosholoza faced off in France this month.