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America’s Cup | Blowing tradition out of the water

  • Continued innovation in broadcast technology surrounding the America's Cup
  • Focus on getting 'real value' for broadcasters
  • New framework will allow organisers to seek sponsorship and media deals from later this year

In a fast-changing sports ecosystem it’s easy to get carried away with the idea that the future belongs solely to esports players and drone pilots.

But that does a disservice to those sports that have squared up to the need to change and broken with years of tradition to reinvent themselves for the 21st century. Cricket’s adoption of Twenty20 is perhaps the standout example to date, but arguably an even more dramatic reincarnation is currently taking place on the clear blue waters off Hamilton, Bermuda, where the build-up to the 35th America’s Cup is under way.

PICTURE: The America's Cup Challenger Series (Getty Images)

History

The America’s Cup is the oldest of all international sports trophies. It was first contested in 1851 when a syndicate of US businessmen sent the schooner America to Britain to represent the New York Yacht Club at the Royal Yacht Squadron Regatta. Their aim was to win the £100 trophy, racing around the Isle of Wight against the best that the Brits could muster.

The history books show that America not only won that race, but started the longest winning run in sports history. The trophy – renamed the America’s Cup after the winning boat – was defended 24 times over 132 years despite the best efforts of some of the world’s wealthiest and most determined men to wrench it from the grip of the US. That didn’t happen until 1983 when Australia II was victorious and in the years since the US dominance has been broken by New Zealand (1995 and 2000) and the Swiss bio-tech tycoon Ernesto Bertarelli’s Alinghi team in 2003 and 2007.

The 34th edition of the America’s Cup was in San Francisco in 2013 and delivered one of the greatest comebacks in sports history as Oracle Team USA pulled off a stunning 9-8 victory over Emirates New Zealand after being 8-1 down in the series.

However, the history and results alone don’t come close to telling the whole story of the America’s Cup. This is a sporting competition that has been played out in courtrooms, as well as the open sea, which has pitted billionaire against billionaire, been at the centre of accusations of espionage and sabotage and, for many years, seemed nothing more than a rich man’s plaything; a sports event that was known worldwide but remained an irrelevant freak-show beyond the sailing community itself.

As a modern sports property, the America’s Cup faced a number of major hurdles. Not least of them was the Deed of Gift, a historic legal document that set out the rules of the competition and effectively gave the defenders the right to choose the terms of engagement for any challenge; including timing, venue and type of boat.

There was no independent governing body to ensure continuation from one edition to the next. Inevitably each event was a one-off – here today and gone tomorrow with little continuing traction, legacy or brand value.

But now, as Oracle team USA prepares to defend the Cup against challengers from the UK, Japan, New Zealand, France and Sweden, the America’s Cup is a rejuvenated property which continues to build on the success of San Francisco ’13. Sir Ben Ainslie, who inspired the famous Oracle fightback in 2013, leads the British challenge this time around.

PICTURE: Oracle celebrates the 2013 America's Cup (Getty Images)

Accessibility

Today the America’s Cup is about accessibility, engagement and adrenalin. Raced in 15-metre foiling catamarans capable of up to 90 kilometres per hour, these boats simply fly across the water to deliver a remarkable spectacle for massive crowds who watch from nearby boats or special on-shore viewing areas.

The decision to switch the America’s Cup racing to on-shore, stadium-style racing, together with massive enhancements to broadcast technology, have taken the racing up-close and personal. According to Sir Russell Coutts, the Americas Cup legend who has won the old trophy five times and is chief executive of the America’s Cup Event Authority – the organising body for the 35th edition – that trend is going to continue in Bermuda as the America’s Cup brand builds traction beyond its core sailing audience.

“It is like we have reinvented the product,” Coutts says. “People knew about the America’s Cup, but now it is having a much wider interest. There has been a complete transformation from the sailing itself to the way it is broadcast, the sponsorship and fan engagement through live sites at the venues,” he explains.

“We have put more focus on the quality of the experience around the America’s Cup. It’s a fact that people have less time in their lives to spend a whole day at an event so our approach has been to reduce the time commitment and shorten the format to ensure that it is packaged in a more focused way.”

Fans will flock to the America’s Cup Village in Hamilton to soak up the event atmosphere and while there will be a wide-range of entertainment and other activities on offer, Coutts says it won’t be “a circus.”

“The infrastructure and entertainment has been designed to complement the race product, which stands on its own. Everything supports the racing,” he says. “The village opens at 11.30am and the day is built around a 90-minute race programme with a half-time break like most other sports.”

But while huge crowds are expected to watch the event in Bermuda, the key to building the event brand lies in the way it is experienced worldwide. Broadcasters covering more than 150 countries have acquired rights and, according to Coutts, not only does that deliver a bigger footprint than last time around, but there will be far more live coverage.

PICTURE: The America's Cup Challenger Series (Getty Images)

Innovation

Coutts is certainly excited about the continued innovation in use of broadcast technology to bring home the levels of athleticism and skill among six members and make the racing more understandable and relevant.

“We will be using a shoulder-based camera called ‘Parrotcam’, as well as making extensive use of drones and cameras fixed to the front of boats to give a new dimension to the coverage,” he says.

“We’ll be using heart rate monitors so that viewers can see exactly how the sailors’ bodies are reacting as they race and, together with views, picture quality and audio, which are a step above where they have been in the past, we will be getting to where we want to be which is having the public know as much, if not more, about what is going on than the sailors. We want to create armchair experts through TV and the computer screen.”

The online experience promises to provide an even deeper vicarious America’s Cup experience.

“We will provide data in even more detail through our relaunched app and the big moments will be shot to deliver a 360-degree experience,” Coutts adds. “That will take people right on board the boat at crucial times to really experience what it is like on board and, even though its will be delayed (not live) that will be really compelling. To be taken on board the boats, look above, behind and around you and to see what it’s like to be involved in racing will be a real ‘wow’ moment.”

If Coutts is delighted by what can be achieved through digital technology it is largely because he’s a sailor who wants the world to understand what the current generation of skippers and crew members are going through and capable of delivering.

“The conversation has moved on. Today’ it is not about rich owners but about athleticism and the skills of the sailors,” he explains.

“The fact is that an ordinary club sailor just couldn’t get onto one of these boats and the technology allows people to understand how athletics and skilful they are. They are amazed at the speed of the boat and the athleticism and talent needed to sail them.

“When I sailed, there was, of course, a difference in skills levels between America’s Cup sailors and club sailors but it simply wasn’t that visible. Now people can understand how special these crew members are and that means the discussion is about the sailors and whether one crew works as well as another.”

PICTURE: Team New Zealand fans in despair after the 2013 Cup defeat (Getty Images)

Appeal

Today’s America’s Cup media product, with its depth of data, on-board cameras and use of virtual imaging technology to make racing understandable to a lay audience, has made it a far more enticing product and, says Coutts, media-rights revenues are increasing.

“We know from our experience with the America’s Cup World Series events in Chicago and New York that we are now getting to create real value for broadcasters,” he says.

“At the same time getting crowds into venues means we now have a revenue stream from ticketing on shore and from other preferential viewing opportunities on boats around the course boundaries. It is giving people something they are prepared to pay for.

“Our sponsors are premium brands like Luis Vuitton, Oracle and BMW and, as our sport changes, we are becoming more and more attractive to other brands in new sectors. For example, we have had some interesting discussions with consumer electronics companies and we’d definitely like to start to leverage associations with other consumer products and there’s plenty of opportunities for these brands to leverage their association – particularly with the athletes,” he says.

Coutts believes that, as a sports property, the America’s Cup is “at the beginning of the cycle.”

“Right now, we have six very competitive teams which means that, unlike in the past, there is no one out there just making up the numbers,” he says. “If we had four more competitive teams, maybe including some from Asian markets, that would definitely grow the sport. The exciting thing is that we now have a platform which has real meaning.”

And having pulled itself into the 21st century by its bootstraps, America’s Cup appears to be putting in place structures to ensure that it has a bright future. The Red Bull Junior America’s Cup – for 19 to 24-year-olds – made its debut in San Francisco four years ago and is already providing its worth. Ten sailors taking part in the current edition have graduated from that event.

“The sailing demographic was ageing which is just not good for the product. The fact is that young fans like watching young sports people,” Coutts says. “This is about creating youth interest and growing the sport and this may be the basis of some sort of draft system.”

PICTURE: Ben Ainslie (Getty Images)

Stability

However, perhaps the most important America’s Cup development in recent times came in January when the current competitors signed a new Framework Agreement that brings the battle for the world’s oldest trophy a level of continuity and stability it has never previously enjoyed.

Under the framework, the America’s Cup will switch to a two-yearly cycle (2019 and 2021) and work will get under way to approach venues, sponsors and media partners in the final quarter of this year.

The agreement also covers the types of boats which will be used in the America’s Cup World Series as well as the Challenger Finals and the America’s Cup Match itself. 

“This is hugely significant for the America’s Cup,” Coutts says. “For the first time in, more than 165 years the teams have got together for the benefit of not only themselves but the America’s Cup.”

The Framework Agreement will have the effect of enabling teams to plan well in advance to compete in the next two cycles and also aims to bring the budget for a competitive team down to a maximum of $30m (€27m) from current levels reported to be more than $100m.

While the agreement indicates a fresh spirit of co-operation between the teams and a willingness to build in sustainability, the Deed of Gift still reigns over the sport.

Whatever happens on the water in Bermuda, the winner will become the defender and will have responsibility for delivering and commercialising the 2019 edition. If there is a new winner that means a new organising team is put in place – a prospect that doesn’t appear to bother Coutts, who says that, if anything, a desire to do better than the last organisers might actually help the evolution of the event.

“We would pass on everything we have done and all the IP including all the media work and branding. The reality is that the structure would roll-on commercially and, in areas like TV production, things are moving so fast that you always have to look at things from new perspectives,” he says.

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