It’s been a challenging period for those involved with the America’s Cup. But where will the crucial next race be held, and is it the right call?
Long before Emirates Team New Zealand flew across the finish line to win the America’s Cup match in March, jockeying was underway for the next edition. In its secretive way, the America’s Cup is like an iceberg: the greater part lurks invisibly beneath the surface.
Relations between Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and Emirates Team New Zealand had cooled and the British INEOS Team UK was being lined up to replace the official Challenger of Record should the Kiwis win.
This is an important role. The winner gets to decide the format, type of boat raced and venue, albeit in agreement with the official challenger. The role gives the British team a seat at the top table for the first time, and an opportunity to press for what it wants. That includes the possibility of racing for the next Cup in the UK.
First, however, the easiest agreement to find between the two teams and the yacht clubs they represent was to continue with the foiling AC75 class for “at least the next two editions of the America’s Cup”. “It will be a condition of entry to the 37th America's Cup that each team agrees to this commitment,” Emirates Team New Zealand spokesman Hamish Hooper told us.
It means the design and development work done over the last four years can be built upon, and it will take in the knowledge and skills built up by incumbent teams. Fans should be pleased, too, because the flying monohulls were spectacular and the racing closer and more exciting than anticipated. The next big question: where and when will the next America’s Cup be raced?
The British suggestion: A Deed of Gift match
The rumours are true that the British have proposed a one-off Deed of Gift match against the Kiwis to be raced in the UK, including or culminating in a race around the Isle of Wight. That would be an historic rerun of the original contest in 1851 between the British and the Americans, but this time explicitly excluding the Americans and any other challengers.
A so called “DOG match” has two precedents: between the New Zealanders and the Stars & Stripes US defenders in 1988, and in 2010, when Alinghi lost the Cup to BMW Oracle Racing. Feasibility studies were carried out with possible venues in the Solent and a bid has been received. The suggestion the British team made was that a rapid-turnaround Cup match in 2022 could keep the momentum while the world slowly returns to normal and New Zealand opens up to visitors. It would be a coup for Sir Jim Ratcliffe of INEOS to bring the racing to home territory, and maybe it would be easier for the home team to win here.
“It’s something that has been tabled as a mechanism to get through this Covid-19 world we have been battling through,” says Ben Ainslie. “It was [a question of] how do we get through to the next Cup four years down the road, and put [it] on the line to get some more teams interested.
"But, in all honesty, it is very much a distant idea, and I’m saying this with my Challenger of Record hat on,” he continues. “There are no plans in place and it is still leftfield thinking. Having a Cup on the Solent would be my preference and I do favour it, but I think we all have to understand the commercial realities of Emirates Team New Zealand.”
Luna Rossa and the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic have both said they want to continue challenging for the Cup and are opposed to being excluded in a one-on-one match. The Americans have made no secret of their furious opposition.
“A Deed of Gift match off the Isle of Wight would be a huge step in the wrong direction,” says Christopher Culver, commodore of the New York Yacht Club. “The two previous Deed of Gift matches were distinct low points in the history of the America’s Cup. The New York Yacht Club will not support a Deed of Gift match or an America’s Cup competition that is effectively open to only the defender and Challenger of Record.” It would, he added, undo the progress made in previous Cup cycles in increasing team numbers. “To waste this opportunity on a two-team event is not in the best interests of the Cup or the sport,” Culver declared.
In June the New Zealand team concluded a three-month negotiation with the New Zealand government and failed to reach agreement. Team chief Grant Dalton said the NZ$99 million offered in funds and in-kind support was not sufficient for a strong defence and a home contest was now “extremely unlikely”.
Shortlisted bids to host the Cup are said to have been received from venues in Cork, Cowes, Doha, Dubai, Jeddah, Oman, Singapore and Valencia. The process is being run for Team New Zealand by Origin Sports Group, the sports management company set up by Sir Keith Mills, who led the team that delivered the London 2012 Olympic Games from bid to execution. Sir Keith is a keen sailor and was instrumental in establishing Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup racing team in 2012. Some of the these locations could eliminate US team American Magic. Skipper and CEO Terry Hutchinson says their preferred choice is New Zealand but if that can’t happen, he told us, they prefer a venue with “a high historical context”.
“If you look at the list that has been proposed, Auckland is clearly one, Cowes is clearly one, Valencia is clearly one, Cork is clearly one, and then from there it is a change in mentality, and there is no historical significance of the America’s Cup heritage. It’s up to our principals to decide… but some of the venues that the Defender has laid out would be a show-stopper for American Magic.”
A presumptuous proposal
While negotiations continue behind locked doors, the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) raised the stakes on 6 May by publishing an extraordinary draft protocol. Despite having no official part to play in defining the terms of the next Cup, it posted online a highly detailed 154-page document defining every aspect, from entry costs to nationality rules. It wants the next America’s Cup to be raced in New Zealand in 2024.
And that’s not all. The NYYC proposes that the winner’s right to choose the venue in a bid process be replaced with a schedule laid out for the next 12 years. It wants the 38th America’s Cup to be raced in Italy in 2027, the 39th in the UK in 2030, the 40th in the US in 2033, and from 2035 it suggests it’s raced in the winner’s country, before changing to a two-yearly cycle, and ultimately becoming an annual event.
It also proposes fixing budgets both annually and for each Cup cycle, and says a commission chaired by the Defender should be “the permanent control and consulting body of the America’s Cup” with corporations to manage the running of the regatta and its commercial arm.
Culver argues: “The cost of a competitive campaign, the lack of continuity in the class and the inability to plan beyond the current cycle have combined to create a prohibitive barrier to entry.” INEOS Team UK was quick to respond, and in steely tones. “We are delighted to hear that the New York Yacht Club are interested in continuing participation in the America’s Cup and we will keep them informed as we move forward,” its statement read. When asked for its response, Emirates Team New Zealand told us it “questions their motives for such a presumptuous statement when entries do not open for some time”.
“There have been some valid points raised by NYYC, a number of which are already being considered,” comments Hamish Hooper, but he emphasises that it is “between Emirates Team New Zealand and the RNZYS, and INEOS Team UK and the Royal Yacht Squadron, who are the two parties responsible for developing the next Protocol.” Team New Zealand says it will publish the next protocol by 17 November.
What changes might we see?
There will almost certainly be changes to the class rule to allow for more supplied equipment. This would cut down some of the design complexity, reduce budgets and make it easier for new teams to step in. However, the NYYC’s proposal for a mutual management group with centralised commercial rights is highly unlikely to happen. It is not something a defender could contemplate when dependent on commercial funding to exist.
“It is not a realistic expectation to ask the winner to give away all those commercial rights. It would take a special kind of team and a special individual to do that,” says Ben Ainslie, “though it is an admirable point to try to get to.”
Ainslie’s comments suggest that negotiations may be more advanced than is currently being let on. “We are getting to the point very soon when we as Challenger of Record can go out and engage with the [other challengers],” he says.
Does there really need to be a consensus? “No,” continues Ainslie, “but it’s right to get more people on board with the thinking and be comfortable with it. If we can help people get more of an understanding of what the event looks like to make it work, that would be good.”
Whatever its successes, the last America’s Cup demonstrated that three challengers is too few. The racing would be more exciting with a bigger field of contenders and a wider fan base. Jimmy Spithill would surely love to lead an Australian challenge. Mike Buckley’s and Taylor Canfield’s Stars + Stripes Team USA are said to be keen to join. There are also strong rumours that two-time winner Ernesto Bertarelli could return for a Swiss challenge with Alinghi.
First, though, the New Zealand team needs a financial package to stop opponents plundering key members of its design, engineering, build and sailing teams. The choice of venue will be the one that, all things considered, best helps them prosper to win again.