America's Cup organizers hope to draw U.S. sports fans to sailing event

03/04/2012 12:00 AM

03/04/2012 12:45 PM

While it won't exactly be a seagoing version of a NASCAR race, next year's America's Cup sailing competition in the San Francisco Bay won't exactly be your grandfather's regatta, either.

Actually, far from it, say organizers for the late summer 2013 event, which will feature some of the world's best sailors racing on massive and blazingly fast specialized catamarans.

"People will be on the Embarcadero seeing these huge boats flying by them and their eyes will be the size of dinner plates," said Katie Pettibone, a three-time America's Cup crew member, Olympic competitor and ocean racer.

Late last month, Oracle Racing team officials met at the team's base at Pier 80 in San Francisco to talk up the events and update the status of the AC72-class catamaran they will use in both the Louis Vuitton Cup and in the America's Cup finals.

Officials noted that while still relatively obscure in the United States, the America's Cup is considered to be the third largest international sporting event behind the Olympics and soccer's World Cup.

To be sure, the America's Cup has never drawn sustained broad-based interest over the course of its 161-year history. One reason is most matches are held up to 20 miles out to sea.

Now, however, with the cup's defense staged in the San Francisco Bay, organizers hope to draw American sports fans to an on-the-water display of athleticism, technology, collisions and other thrills and spills – all of which can be viewed from the Embarcadero.

"We're talking about these races being held within the natural amphitheater that is the San Francisco Bay itself, and really just a short distance from shore," said Pettibone, an America's Cup Organizing Committee member and a Sacramento-based lobbyist.

Location is viewer-friendly

After his 2010 cup win in Spain, Oracle Corp. founder and team owner Larry Ellison was given the option of defending the cup anywhere in the world. He chose the San Francisco Bay and has been busy reshaping the event into a mass audience and TV-pleaser since, observers say.

The very selection of the huge catamaran racing yachts is key to making the event more popular, according to Pettibone. Although they will use smaller, 45-foot-long catamarans in the preliminary sailing heats, the international teams will all eventually sail on a commonly designed vessel known as the AC72 class racing yacht. Engineers predict that these catamarans will be capable of going as fast as 32 knots (about 36 mph) on the water.

"They're monsters," Pettibone said. "They are 72 feet long, about 46 feet wide and will have a mast that's a little over 130 feet high."

Because of their design, the vessels are not only fast but can capsize spectacularly during a race. The AC72's will also feature broadcast-quality cameras and microphones to give TV viewers virtual front-row seats.

That footage and sound, in turn, will be used by NBC and the NBC Sports Group, which recently announced that it will broadcast the America's Cup 2013.

John Arndt, a spokesman for Mill Valley-based Latitude 38, a 35-year-old sailing publication, said the key to getting Americans interested in the America's Cup is properly marketing the stories of the teams and their sailors.

"I think it's fair to say that competitive sailing in America is now where soccer was 30 years ago," Arndt said.

But competitive sailing is a truly international sport, so Ellison's Oracle Racing team spared little expense in recruiting some the best sailors from around the globe.

In fact, Jimmy Spithill and Russell Coutts, the team's two skippers, come from Australia and New Zealand, respectively. So far, only one American by birth, tactician John Kostecki, is on the Oracle team.

Spithill, 32, said he is honored to help lead the team to defend the cup – the very same trophy he helped win in 2010 for then-BMW Oracle Racing team off Spain, making him the youngest helmsman and skipper to ever win the trophy.

Spithill said he did not think nationality will be an issue.

"I think it's what we will do on the water that counts. Besides, I have to tell you – when I'm at home, I'm surrounded by Yanks," Spithill said, referring to his American wife and children.

Teams from around the world

Stephanie Martin, a spokeswoman for the America's Cup Event Authority, said that to date, four teams have paid the contest entry fees: the United States (Oracle Racing), Italy, New Zealand and Sweden.

Martin said she expects teams from South Korea, China, France and Spain to enter before the June 1 deadline.

While the wind will push the America's Cup sailboats, observers agree that money and development rights will make the event go forward.

At the center of event planning is an agreement by Ellison to pay to repair dilapidated piers for use during the America's Cup events and into the future. Recently, however, that deal was greatly scaled back during talks led by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

Now, the international sailing teams will set up bases in and around Pier 80, where Oracle's base is established. An elaborate America's Cup Village will be built at Piers 27-29. After the event, the village will be converted into a cruise ship terminal. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors must still approve the smaller development deal.

While arrangements remain unsettled, an economic study shows that the America's Cup will be an economic boon. Although its conclusions have been challenged by some, a study co-published by the Bay Area Council's Economic Institute and by the consulting firm Beacon Economics projects the event will generate as much as $1.4 billion in economic benefits for the region. It also says some 8,800 jobs will be created to support the sailing teams and the sailing fans and tourists who will come to the city from around the world.

"I don't think there is a major risk of the city or the port going upside down on this. After the event there will be lasting and important infrastructure improvements made," said Sean Randolf, president and CEO of the institute.

Randolf said that once more people get a sense of the athleticism and excitement involved, the event will prove a winner – economically and culturally. Pettibone, who just returned from participating in an international regatta in the Persian Gulf, agreed.

"At this level, when things go bad out there, they tend to go bad fast," she said.

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