The 37th America’s Cup is firmly in its inter-event stage. A stage far longer than the actual competition.
Traditionally this was when the great and the good of the AC world gathered in cigar-smoke filled clubhouses to wrangle over who got to throw a fraction of their billions at the next America’s Cup.
For over 100 years this was an American pastime carried out in the New York Yacht Club . . . Until they made the mistake of letting the Australians have a go after years of British stiff upper lip failure.
The swaggering Aussie teams provide a different level of competition and eventually Fank Packer’s Australia II broke the American 130-year hold on the Auld Mug in 1983, and the genie was out of the bottle.
The American hold on the cup was never the same and although they took back the Cup in 1988, wins by New Zealand (1995 and 2000) and Switzerland (2003 and 2007) broke the mould for good.
Following wins by the Kiwis in 2017 and 2021 it has now come down to the next Cup match, the 37th AC, being hawked around the world to find a venue willing to host the event.
This situation has arisen due to the apparent lack of sufficient funding for the New Zealand AC team from national sources, and the continued failure to turn the AC into a regular, front-line sporting media event, with a regular competition programme.
This lack of a regular top level professional sailing circuit that can stand alongside other major worldwide sporting events, has played into the perception of yacht racing as a dilettante pastime, split between amateur club level dinghy racing and millionaires’ yachts jousting between parties in exotic locations.
This situation has been jumped on by former AC winners, Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts with the formation of the SailGP Championship.
Their event aims to formalise an AC level of competition with up to ten national based professional teams competing in a regular series of world-wide Grand Prix, in identical F50 foiling catamarans, with the SailGP Grand Final contested for a $1 million prize.
Not quite Formula 1 Motor Racing but from such small steps . . . Just as Rugby, Tennis and Cricket went through a traumatic period of change to reach a full professional world-wide popularity, sailing is embarking on that journey without a top-level amateur circuit with historic major events that have grabbed the public attention.
Sailing is stuffed-full of World and European championships that mean nothing to the general public and little outside each of the hundreds of the different classes.
The only regularly contested event with world-wide interest is the Olympic Games and that only impinges on the public psyche for a couple of weeks, every four years.
The America’s cup is struggling to move on, without even this four yearly schedule, while retaining its mythical aura as the summit of international yacht racing competition.
And so we see the New Zealand AC holders and possible challengers indulge in traditional posturing and stonewalling to convince someone – anyone – that their country, city or creek, really needs to host this event, with all the years of costly baggage that go with it.
Meanwhile SailGP is quietly convincing the sailing world that it really is the forerunner of a truly international sailing event.
Covid set it back just as the second season kicked off, but if Larry Ellison keeps pumping in his spare cash, and Russell Coutts can continue to hustle up the team sponsors with top class crews, then this might just be the future.
Can the America’s Cup with its ability to devour vast amounts of cash, run beside a truly commercial SailGP or will the America’s Cup sink slowly into the sunset, a footnote to yachting’s history . . .
Of course all bets are off if Ainslie can finally win the Auld Mug before he retires.