Seems like most people I run into lately in SF ask me what I think of the America's Cup. Maybe it's a generic conversation starter. I take it as a serious question. Usually the conversation centers around the lack of public interest, the huge amount of money…
I thought it was hard to sum up the event until a friend described it like this:
It's a "Look At My Penis Go!" event
That, in a nutshell, is what we have now. Who wants to watch? Oracle seems to have created a giant embarrassment.
But seriously, the sailing community has left the show, the general public isn't coming. Some members of the teams even tell the public the event for them is "like being in jail"…so what is going on? Here's a few guesses based on recent experience.
Ellison told the esteemed St Francis Yacht Club many years ago he wanted to take over and run the Cup his way. When the local club balked at total-control negotiation, he walked a few steps to the next club. Golden Gate actually heard the fight and invited him over. Golden Gate openly admits they did it for the money; Ellison could do whatever he wanted if he gave them enough money to stay open.
Some have tried to describe this union as a poor guy and a rich guy working together, or the community working with a big company; but everyone knows Oracle doesn't play that way. They took the place over and run it their way.
Oracle's split from the St Francis community could have been a chance to pressure an old stodgy club to become more relevant to experimentation and innovation, becoming more inclusive. That would have been interesting. Instead, it looks like Ellison fell out with them for the opposite reason. St Francis is not exclusive enough — it has people he doesn't want to listen to!
It's perhaps worth adding here that when the AC45 were racing in front of the St. Francis clubhouse I walked up to the entrance with my reciprocal membership card in hand. A old man at the door stopped me and said "sorry, when the America's Cup is here we don't honor reciprocal membership status."
Annoyed but not dissuaded I walked 100 feet away and sat on the rocks by the water with 100s of other people gathering. Soon I became the unofficial announcer for the shoreline. I explained why China's roundings were slow and uncoordinated, people asked me for blow-by-blow sports-casting…it turned out to be an amazing experience helping the public understand what was happening.
The strangest part of all, perhaps, is when a guy I had sailed with on long-distance coastal races walked up (he was rejected from St. Francis also) and started to ask me about the dynamics of multi-hull speed and handling. I realized at that moment the most experienced, seasoned mono-hull racers didn't see what I could see after years of racing an A-Cat. We became a sort-of sports-cast team, he would ask general sailboat racing questions and I would color with specifics and stories. The crowd loved it.
Who is the Steve Madden of sailing? We need one. Someone funny, who gets the game, who speaks at the common person's level; someone who can't be and doesn't want to be locked up inside some exclusive club for hat-less VIPs. The club commodore since then (perhaps after realizing there was low demand) has sent a letter inviting us lowly reciprocal members to come visit during the races.
After the club denied me access I had a great time sharing the Cup experience outside with the unwashed, the uninitiated, the non-sailors. There was no sailing community connection. Even professional sailors I contacted to come watch at the club were off sailing in other events, unimpressed with the AC34 races.
Number 3 (just behind LA and Muni) in the list of Things SF Love to Hate is Larry Ellison:
There really aren’t many beloved billionaire CEOs out there, but the Oracle one takes the booby prize. If his lavish lifestyle and conspicuous mansions weren’t enough to sour his standing in the city, Ellison’s campaign to bring the America’s Cup to town has done the trick. There’s been more headache than economic benefit from the Cup so far.
I walked down to the waterfront recently. A very active and respected member of the local sailing community asked me to have lunch. As I arrived, an AC72 ambled in the water nearby. There was no crowd. The general public simply didn't come.
He was looking out across the empty water when I asked "what happened to race day". He laughed and said "We hoped for twelve boats but with only four total and three working…nobody wants to watch a race of one. Today is no different than any other day — there you see a boat sailing on the Bay. The crowds won't come. So let's eat…"
To put it bluntly, I was invited to the America's Cup backstage. I brought with me someone instrumental to America's Cup history and present success — a legend in sailboat racing. I was honored to be there with him. In fact, I couldn't believe this was happening.
For 30 seconds it was momentous, as if my entire life of sailing had led up to this moment. We arrived and shook hands with an official of the AC34 sales team. And then we were asked…"have you ever heard of the America's Cup before?"
*screeching record needle*
Awkward. We then were told by this used-car salesman looking guy with a giant diamond ring and popped white collar that the Cup is under new management and they're doing things right now — they are lining up a target audience of "generic sports enthusiasts who can pay $40K for exclusivity seats and don't really care what they're watching."
*car driving off cliff and exploding fireballs*
I flew out of that meeting like an AC72 downwind in the Bay on an August afternoon. St Francis seemed quaint and community-focused compared to this nauseating group that stood for what? Where did the love of sailing go? Who was this idiot talking with me (I still have his card) and his sidekick (she later turned her back on us, literally, to give us the sign we should leave).
Don't get me wrong, I love the America's Cup, I love sailing. In fact, my entire house has been decorated for decades with the history of America's Cup contenders (Tommy Sopwith's 1934 Endeavour, Vanderbilt's 1903 Reliance, the amazing Enterprise of 1930). And I've grown up sailing, and been fortunate enough to have sailed with and raced against many of the people working on the current campaigns.
In fact, I may still write up a detailed explanation of how the boats work, the amazing transformation in technology and teams, or do some impromptu race commentary. There's so much to talk about.
But WTF Larry? We're losing the audience, including me.