Until now, America’s Cup racing has been a series of one-off contests between rich men with big egos. Larry Ellison appeared to fit that mould, but after winning the Cup he has shown far more originality and daring than any previous holder, with a desire to make a permanent mark on the viciously competitive world of commercial sport.
US citizens may not realise it, but Super Bowl’s big audiences of a little under 100 million TV viewers are small beer. Soccer’s FIFA World cup final draws audiences more than twice as large, and cricket is amazing. The 2011 World Cup match between India and Pakistan was watched by more than 1 billion viewers.
However, it’s not how many people watch that counts in business terms. It’s what they’re worth to the promoters. Larry and his team have a huge challenge on their hands, and they’ve had an uphill battle almost all the way. It may seem odd to think of him as the cheeky upstart – a billionaire whose yacht was taller than the waterfront hotels in front of which it was parked during the Venice AC World Series event last year – but that’s what he is in this context.
First, he has had to turn the America’s Cup into something that can be made to appeal to a wide audience that knows nothing about sailing, let alone about racing sailing craft. At least he can follow a precedent here. Both the Volvo in-port races and the Extreme 40 Series catamaran races have shown that short courses which run close inshore with boats big enough to be seen, coupled with expensive state-of-the-art communications and the real-time video post-processing known as ‘augmented reality’, have created exciting television.
The ballgame promoters did make the first moves to help viewers see what was going on – mostly aided by Stan Honey, an accomplished sailor and navigator who brought his Stanford Research Institute experience of over-the horizon radar to the aid of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell in 1983 (the year the IBM PC was launched). He created what may have been the first on-board computer system, connecting twice a day to satellites in the days before GPS, ensuring Bushnell’s victory in the Transpac California to Honolulu race. A decade later, Honey got into the TV sports business, superimposing ‘reality-augmenting’ effects in real time – the blue glow and contrail that allowed viewers to keep track of the puck in ice hockey, the yellow first-down line for NFL, and other field game add-ons.
However, these are all simple 2D effects calculated from the views of fixed cameras. What Honey and his team have developed to enhance TV coverage of sailboat racing is vastly more complex and expensive. Everything depends on very accurate tracking in 3D of both the boats and the remotely-controlled helicopter-borne cameras – within centimetres, not the usual 5 metres or so of a standard GPS on a good day. The combination GPS and inertial navigation system in the helicopters is so state-of-the-art that the US Government regulates it like a weapons system, according to Wired.com journalist Adam Fisher.
There’s another big difference between Honey’s LiveLine system and the ballgame enhancers, which wasn’t in the original design objectives. In ballgames, it’s still the referee/umpire and his assistants on the pitch that provide and use the evidence they use for their decisions, but LiveLine is used to control sailboat races. A team of adjudicators uses its output to identify infringements, and it is used to define courses.
This controlling aspect of the system is critical to turning sailboat racing into a major TV attraction. One factor that always discouraged TV companies from showing live coverage of round-the-cans sailboat racing was the impossibility of committing to viewing schedules. Traditional races start with a long windward leg, which usually spreads the fleet out and reduces contention during the rounding of course marks, and marks are laid to anchors well in advance. A major change in wind direction before the start usually results in a postponement of around half an hour, while the marks are relaid to suit the new wind direction. A system such as LiveLine allows race organisers to use motor boats with accurate position-finding equipment to act as turning marks, which allows organisers to alter the course in minutes. Unfortunately, the organisers of the AC45 event in Venice last year got a little too enthusiastic about their new toy and decided to move a mark so close inshore that there wasn’t room for all the boats that arrived at the same time and a major crash ensued.
Extreme 40 Series races deliberately set out to encourage capsizes and collisions because it makes the races more entertaining (can you put your hand on your heart and say that the possibility of a major crash is not one of the things that attracts you to NASCAR and even F1?), but AC45s are rather more expensive and fragile beasts than Extreme 40s and cannot be patched up by the night shift in time for tomorrow’s race after an incident. For an AC72, a serious collision or even a bad capsize spells Game Over, as we saw with the first Oracle boat a few months ago. Organisers will have to walk a delicate line to maximise the excitement while ensuring that the competitors survive to the end of the event, but at least they now have the necessary tools.
Larry and his team needed a very different set of skills and a lot of perseverance to overcome another obstacle – politically-motivated obstruction. Previous cup winners have just left the host yacht club to get on with organising the next challenge as if it were just another regatta, but Ellison is using it as a pawn in a bid to turn round-the-cans sailboat racing into a major commercial sport. The challenge was similar to running the Olympic Games, but on a smaller scale. They had to drive the cumbersome processes that normally drag infrastructure and zoning decisions out over years and even decades, in order to select and develop parts of the San Francisco waterfront to the degree necessary to accommodate both competitors and spectators on the scale they needed. The original grand plan was reduced to a tenth of its original budget, consisting mostly of tidying up derelict waterfront, with San Francisco picking up the tab. At last, some local businesses are now seeing the potential and beginning to contribute.
With the product and the venue beginning to look credible, Larry and his team had to find a TV network prepared to cover the event. For established sports, the TV companies bid for rights, but Larry ended up paying for blocks of NBC airtime as if they were infomercials. However, things started looking up when the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences gave Honey and his team an Emmy for canned highlights that aired on NBC, and several European TV networks gave the Venice event full coverage, demonstrating how effective organisers using LiveStream could be in a live broadcast.
The current economic climate has undoubtedly had an impact on one other aspect of the Grand Plan – attracting competitors for both the Word Series in AC45s and the Challenge itself in AC72s. There were less initial entries than hoped for, and several have since dropped out. There is also a ‘chicken-and-egg’ aspect to this – competitors’ sponsors need to believe that they will get the publicity they are seeking, and the organisers need committed competitors to provide the entertainment they’re selling.
So what’s my prognosis? The enabling video and race control technology is now proven, so it seems to me that one day not too far in the future round-the-cans sailboat racing will become a viable commercial sport with networks bidding for rights to cover it. The America’s Cup World series could develop into a regular event – even with their wingsails, the boats are fairly rugged and the young teams who have been selected for the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup have shown that they can become competent in quite strong winds very quickly. Have you noticed how old hands always underestimate how quickly people in their late teens and early twenties pick up skills?
The AC72s in their current form worry me. The hulls flex visibly in moderate conditions, which isn’t too good when you’re riding on simple foils attached to them. My feeling is that the design needs further development, but that can’t happen before this year’s Challenge races, so there’s a significant chance that one incident, rather than the results of a series of races, will mark Game Over.
Larry Ellison and the Oracle team have dragged the America’s cup out of the slimy, stinking bog into which it was sinking, and they’re helping change professional round-the-cans sailboat racing as a spectator sport. There will be good times interspersed with plenty of mistakes, but whoever wins this year, I fervently hope they’ll carry on the good work.