Sunday, February 21, 2010

America's Cup is Boring, Boring, Boring......

Certainly the just completed America's Cup in giant multihulls ranks up there with the other modern Deed of Gift match (1988 - Dennis Connor's cat vs. NZ Michael Fay's big Farr boat) as two of the most boring America's Cup matches ever. But the America's Cup as a visual sport, even with the old IACC keelboat class, is a dud. And with the professional's (technologists and sailors) driving the game, I fear it won't get any better. There's big money (meaning big boats with lots of technology) involved when the billionaires play the game. That's good for the professionals but not the game itself.

Let me detail what the Grand Poobah's directing the America's Cup have obviously forgotten;

  1. America's Cup = Watersport - The America's Cup is a watersport; a basic fact that seems to be lost among the technology, the litigation, the bigger, faster is better mantra, etc. The most dramatic scenes in the America's Cup are when water intrudes into the racing. Who can forget TNZ dramatically bailing the water out during the opening race of 2003 America's Cup? Who can forget the dramatic sinking of One Australia in 1995? Or the near sinking of Larry Ellison's challenger? Most pundits agree the 1987 America's Cup in the ocean off Fremantle, Australia as the best ever. Why is that? You had the slow, heavy 12 meters bashing their way through the breezy ocean swell, spray everywhere, solid water coursing down the decks. You had watersport! Contrast that with the America's Cup that just finished. I groaned when I was subjected to those long video shots from the aft quarter of BMW/Oracle. A solitary James Spithill, back to the camera, on this huge arm, suspended above what? Was there water down there? Was he supposed to be steering? Well, we needed the faraway helicopter video shot to show we are indeed racing on that medium called water. And even with the IACC keelboats, did spray ever make it back to the helmsman, tactician? Even with the onboard video shots taken from the stern of the IACC keelboats, we rarely saw water make it over the gunwhales.
  2. Sport = Action - Sport usually has humans running, jumping, kicking, throwing and so on. When sport has the humans as static drivers, it helps that the there is visual image of speed to attract the viewer (NASCAR, offshore powerboat racing). Sailing, unfortunately can be mostly static, both for human action and visual speed. I would say sailing is worse than golf (which in TV land has the ability to pan to many different golfers throughout the golf course, so even though the game of golf is mostly static, on TV there seems to be plenty of action to keep viewers occupied). When sailing explodes into action is in the course changes and where there are mistakes or breakdowns. So lets have racing with more course changes, in boats that require lots of crew movement, with the number of crew that are deliberately kept lean. I actually think you get more action with a boat like a 12 meter; large overlapping genoas that are a bear to tack, symmetrical spinnakers that require much more expertise in a gybe, that are low freeboard so that the crew must contend with solid water (see watersport above).
  3. Match Racing = Boring - Let's give a synopsis of match racing tactics as seen in 2007 Valencia. In the prestart we have the dial up where both boats shoot head to wind and stop. There is much shouting, gesticulating, waving of flags by the afterquard, until, after an interminable wait, the weather boat bails out. This must be totally bizarre, not to say boring to most viewers! Now the boats must get back to the correct side of the line. We have a parade of the leading, trailing boats sailing dipsy doodles through the spectator fleet. Eventually both boats turn for the line and since both crews are very practiced at this, they start right on time with maybe 1 1/2 to 2 boat lengths separation. Then for the next ten minutes it's speed on until one boat forces the other one to tack onto port. At Valencia, most often there was a left hand shift so the leading boat wouldn't immediately tack to cover, instead the leader would wait for the shift, tack, and then it was game over. Game over usually in the first 20 minutes. The viewer would then be subjected to the rest of the race where the two boats were usually sailing in two different parts of the course. Boring! Bring back fleet racing to the America's Cup, where there are much more boat on boat tactical decisions, much more course changes (see above; sport=action). They had fleet racing in the IACC class during the off years before Valencia and what little I saw of it, I thought it much more exciting than match racing.
  4. National Identity = Excitement - To sail for a yacht club in a country, you must be a citizen of that country. No carpet baggers! Most American sailors know there was only two Americans sailing on Ellison's DOGzilla winner. That puts a big asterisk out there. Multinational crews just reinforces the perception that the America's Cup is just a closed rich man's sport. I know, I know, New Zealand, Australia, England could stock two of three America's Cup with qualified professional sailors. What will we do with all those unemployed professionals? But National Identity is a big factor in sports interest to the general public. In Valencia 2007, one of the big stories was the Republic of South Africa, where if I remember correctly, the crew was all South African, inexperienced, but keen, and able to take some races off the big boys. I don't watch NHL hockey but I do watch Olympic hockey and the big factor in my enjoyment is the competition between nations and their citizens. Ovechkin plays for the Washington Capitals in the NHL. He plays for his country, Russia, and not the U.S. in the Olympics. Bring that back to the America's Cup.

There you have it. Let's have an America's Cup in smaller, less expensive boats that are close to the water (even in it at times), are hard to sail, give lots of action for everyone when turning. Let's have fleet racing as a major component of the Cup and let's keep everyone competing on the boats as citizens of the country they represent.