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Don't fret about the America's Cup, sailing doesn't need it

2013 July 8

I'm not worried about the America's Cup. I'm not losing sleep because there are only four contenders for the Cup or because fundraising for what was to be a waterfront extravaganza for San Francisco this summer is falling woefully short. I'm not outraged that the boats chosen for the Cup are manifestly unsafe exotics. I have no qualms over the America's Cup being turned into a spectacle designed to appeal to an audience lured by the potential for thrills, spills, disaster and tragedy.

No, what scares the hell out of me is that people are going to think the America's Cup is about sailing.

I got a premonition of that fear last summer when a presenter at a sailing business conference received a warm reception for a speech in which he said marketing of the 2013 America's Cup was aimed at "the NASCAR demographic."

Nothing against NASCAR, its fans or its demographic, whatever that is, but how exactly does a sailboat competition designed to appeal to car racing enthusiasts help sailing?

Let's see. After watching AC72 catamarans that have wings instead of sails and fly over the water on hydrofoils at 45 miles per hour, the America's Cup-viewing speed aficionados are going to be moved to rush to the nearest boat store to buy 30-foot racer-cruisers that might hit 7 miles per hour in a gale.

That's not going to happen, of course, but it's not the fault of the America's Cup. In fact, let's give the Cup organizers credit for doing what they said they would do. They've created a competition that is more like auto racing than sailing.

That's fine with me. Boredom being an ever-present threat, the world can always use another form of entertainment. And if that entertainment employs vessels so extreme they're dangerous, as was proven when a crewman on an AC72 was killed as the boat began to disintegrate in moderate conditions on San Francisco Bay, well, then chalk it up as one more similarity with auto racing. Just don't call this entertainment sailing.

Don't get me wrong. I am appalled by the death of Andrew Simpson of the Swedish America's Cup team. I am appalled that after the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars on design and engineering, the possibility of the failure of the boat was not predicted and the crew protected.
Judging from postings on various websites, there is a lot of angst in the sailing community over this tragedy. That's understandable, but let's be clear: It's not sailing's fault. This is on the America's Cup.

It wasn't always true, but in 2013 the America's Cup and sailing are two different things. Some of my friends in the sailing business still don't get that, and I think I know why. For a long time the holy grail for those who wanted to goose the growth of sailing beyond its normal pace-that would be sluggish-has been to make it a popular spectator sport.

The thinking apparently goes that if people enjoy watching a sport, they'll want to get involved in its themselves. If that were true, football fans would be flocking to sporting goods stores to buy shoulder pads after watching NFL games.

Here's an irony: When the America's Cup really was about sailing, the holy grail might have been closer than it will be with a made-for-TV spectacle that is staged on the water but otherwise is the antithesis of sailing as most people know it.

The editors of Time put Dennis Conner-zinc-oxide on his nose, spray in his face-on the magazine's cover in 1987 because a lot of Americans who weren't sailors were fascinated by what was perceived as a contest between the United States and Australia and were watching and reading about the racing off Freemantle, Australia.

I don't know if this had any effect on the growth of sailing, but it sure energized people who were already in the fold. Sailors could relate to Conner and his mates because what they were doing, after all, was sailing. How we loved the America's Cup!
OK, let's stow the nostalgia. That America's Cup and the others like it are history. It's time to move on.

The America's Cup morphed into the creature we have today because putting on an international sailing competition wasn't enough. The Cup had to do more than bring together great sailors questing after a historic trophy, including, of all things, fueling urban renewal for the cities chosen to host the Cup.

San Francisco was sold on the Cup with promises of rebuilding piers and other waterfront facilities besides generating $1.4 billion in economic activity. (Those promises will not be kept.) Even the billionaires who play with the America's Cup can't, or won't, make that happen without sponsors' cash, and sponsors don't open corporate coffers for simple sailboat races. They need an extravaganza with a mega audience.

I take no pleasure in the troubles of this year's America's Cup. For San Francisco's sake (as things stand the city is on the hook for a lot of the expenses), I hope the affair salvages something that could be called a success. I certainly hope they find ways to make the boats safer and that the people who have to operate these boats (strike that; I meant these machines) realize that they are peformers in high-risk entertainment. But then, let the spectacle begin.

Who knows, it might be interesting to watch-as long as viewers keep in mind that what they are watching is not sailing.

And by the way, sailing is doing just fine. It doesn't need the America's Cup.