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Dear Larry, your America’s Cup was an embarrassment of riches

2014 January 14

Dear Larry: With all the things a billionaire has to do, it must have slipped your mind to call and ask how I liked the America's Cup. So let me take this opportunity to let you know.

It was awful.

Your billions allowed you to do what you pleased with what sailors affectionately call the "Auld Mug," so let me explain what gives me the right to criticize.

I've been involved in the Cup since 1958 when, as a teenage sailor, I could hardly wait for the latest sailing magazine to tell me that Briggs Cunningham and the American crew had whupped the Brits. As a nautical journalist and dedicated Cup follower, I covered the Cup from 1970 on, served as the moderator of press conferences in San Diego and, to my delight, produced a special edition of Yachting Magazine about the America's Cup. I know the America's Cup. I also know that the regatta in San Francisco wasn't an America's Cup.

I know, I know, you took the Cup away from Alinghi and, in theory, that gives you the right to do what you want with it. But that's not really true, because the America's Cup belongs to all of us. Every sailor, whether American or Kiwi, Aussie or Brit, owns a piece of the "Auld Mug" because it is a part of our DNA, the very core of our sport.

All you did was create a TV spectacle, or debacle, depending on your point of view. I choose the latter.

Your pet Kiwi CEO, Sir Russell Coutts, promised a "new era" for "the Facebook generation, not the Flintstone generation." He made it sound like the new era would be better, but it was a disaster. Instead of the many international teams expected, only three challengers could afford to show.

Tell me, Larry, just between us ... was the Forbes report that you spent $200 million to keep the Cup accurate? Or was it, as some suggest, twice that?

And Russell's Facebookers? They stayed away in droves. The influx of tourists promised to San Franciscans, in return for giving you some of their docks? Zip. Nada. Bupkis.

Despite the cool graphics, the TV coverage was embarrassing. Millions of American sailors, who had stayed up into the wee hours during 1987 to watch Dennis bring the Cup back from Fremantle, got only a "not available in this country" message on their screen.

And even if they upgraded to some ESPN channel, they still got short-changed. Watching the Kiwi challenger piddle around the course alone in the Vuitton Cup while the commentator tried to work up excitement by exclaiming, "Wow, this is really thrilling!" was just lame. No wonder the Louis Vuitton folks reportedly asked for a chunk of their sponsorship money back.

Larry, the race course was ridiculous too. Little kids in Optimists sail longer races than the 23-minutes it took for your Cup cats to whip around a 10-mile, five-legged course. Four minutes on a leg? That's a drag race, not a sailboat race. Would you want the Indy 500 to be the Indy 5? How about the 24 Minutes of LeMans? Or is it because you believe that 23 minutes is the attention span of your Facebook generation?

This whole mess was contrived and embarrassing. But then, Larry, you had to cheat in the AC Worlds. Oh, I know, all of your management disavowed any knowledge of the guys on your team who got kicked out but, really, do you expect us to believe that a few guys just woke up one night and decided to tiptoe into the shed to make illegal alterations to your boats? Without anyone, like Russell, the designers, the other sailors, or your huge shore crew, ever knowing?

So those Facebookers, who may not understand sailing, do know one thing: the American team cheated.

And, speaking of the sailors, did anything strike you as a little weird during the opening ceremonies when the "American" team was introduced? Like, there were only two Americans on the boat (which became only one when tactician John Kostecki was replaced)? And the American skipper was an Aussie? Even Team New Zealand had nine Kiwis and two Aussies aboard.

OK, Larry, I have to agree that the boats are spectacular, all foiling and flying and zooming around. But that isn't sailing. Do you think any Facebookers got so excited they rushed out and bought a
Beneteau or a Catalina or even an Optimist? Naaah. Heck, Larry, real sailors like to sail when the wind is blowing. But you cancelled the racing if the wind got to 22 knots. That's when it starts getting fun, with smaller jibs and foul weather gear.

So, Larry, I know you're dying to ask me how to help you fix the America's Cup for next time. OK, here goes:

Nationality: The teams have to be from the challenging country. Period. You can fool with the rules, but I think a couple of years of residency should be the minimum.

Boats: Geez, Larry, you're the only one that can afford these monsters. If you're absolutely nuts over catamarans, then make them smaller and affordable. Make them one-designs to really see who has the best sailors.

Wings: Lose the wings. They're expensive, and we call it sailing, Larry, not winging.

Courses: Let's mix it up and have longer races with beating, reaching and running. No reaching starts, either.

Larry, you're an American Horatio Alger success story, from modest beginnings to seventh richest man in the world. You've won the America's Cup twice. Don't tarnish the Cup. Don't flush it down the toilet. Now is the time to turn it back into the crown jewel of sailing. Go on, Larry. Make it into the premier sailing event between nations again.

Then you can call it the America's Cup.