It’s mind boggling to think that just fifteen years ago Instagram, Snapchat, Bitcoin, Spotify, Pinterest, Whatsapp, Uber, Tesla, YouTube, and AirBnB didn’t exist. We were also yet to see an iPad or experience 4G and the blockchain was simply an idea, an algorithmic fantasy on mathematician’s blackboards. And this was just fifteen years ago.
The world moves forward at an unrelenting pace and the way we all consume media, use data and capitalise on digital in our everyday lives is astonishing. The pandemic accelerated the march towards digital by generations. Fuel shortages are leading us to electric cars with enquiries up over 1000% for electric vehicles just this week in the UK. The world is changing and there’s no stopping it.
Culturally the mood is shifting too. Cancel culture is a real. Say the wrong phrase in public and you’re toast. Mental health is high on the agenda and acknowledged regularly in defamation suits. Crimes of the past are being brought to justice. Statues of the celebrated are being torn down. History is being re-visited. And young people entering the workforce now want more than just a pay cheque, they demand a purpose, corporate values and what exactly can you, Mr Employer, do for them. Not the other way around.
Diversity, inclusion and gender equality are now not something to discuss at the end of a three-hour board meeting. They are in pole position, quite rightly, and it’s simply not good enough for our corporate world to talk a good book, put up a few posters and pretend all is okay. Accountability is paramount. The environment and sustainability matters. The modern workforce demands actions, not words.
And this is the backdrop that those in the America’s Cup are faced with and I wonder whether they get it. On the face of it, it’s an ugly spectacle of excess. A very select and diminishing few individuals with wealth beyond imagination committing eye-watering, unimaginable sums of money to something that matters little all told and barely moves a dial of any significance.
It’s a sailboat race that is beautiful in action but vulgar around the edges. The very worst of human nature oft displayed – greed, avarice, duplicity, downright lies, personal attacks, cheating…the list goes on. As it stands today, right now, it’s a bizarre, bewildering platform where the entry fee has sky-rocketed with boats at the extreme requiring enormous computational and man-power to even work. Has the Cup lost the plot and mis-read the room on a gargantuan scale? Would a return to a more manageable state be preferential?
Auckland 2021 could well be the last America’s Cup of an era. The 37th edition is looking shaky with effectively only one team tearing up $50 bills at the moment whilst the rest scrabble to cobble together funding.
The big new media names, the newly minted gazillionaires that would be the usual suspects in any other cycle, have largely shunned the event. It’s no longer the pinnacle of human endeavour. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, two people who love a challenge, would rather experience weightlessness in low orbit with a vision to conquer inter-planetary travel than get involved with a loaded sailboat race. Meanwhile at the other end of the scale, kids get excited at the regularity of SailGP infiltrating their timelines and find the whole politics of the Cup a bore.
In a generation, without re-invention, the Cup could become a high-profile victim of severe cancel culture. Others are doing it better, right now, right this minute.
And how many of the new-wealthy will, in a few years’ time (perhaps right now), even register the America’s Cup as a thing? They will look at its lack of diversity and eco-credentials combined with paltry audiences and run a mile from tagging their name to something that doesn’t tick those, and many other, boxes.
This current Cup cycle is limping along and getting desperate casting around on a global scale to bring in the required money. The last stand of the desperate is to tap up the oil rich states who can donate so long as you don’t ask too many questions. That’s a parlous state of affairs. And when only governmental intervention with the others can get a commercial decision over the line, you know that things are mightily wrong.
So what’s the way out of this mess before it’s too late? Well the Cup’s going to have to go through this generational cycle, pause, and take a very long, hard look at itself. Fresh faces dialled into modern sports with a finger on modern culture is where you start. Running a Cup campaign that requires benevolent largesse for little return that runs into the many tens of millions of dollars is absolutely unsustainable. And wholly unpalatable.
The requirement to constantly build new is detrimental. The lack of racing between the regattas is commercially self-defeating. Gender inequality is depressing. The one venue edict is precluding. Things have to change and if they want to project a ‘global sport’ they have to go global – the clue’s in the title. Multi-events need to be scheduled in stone and a timetable set that matters. It simply can’t go on as it is.
My sense is that AC37, if it happens as expected, is a final roar of the dinosaurs with window-dressing. A thorough re-vamp will then not only be demanded but necessitated before it becomes a quirky curiosity on a sailing calendar with about as much resonance as a flotilla regatta.
There are bright minds in the Cup and good people trying to drag it forward. All is not lost quite yet but without root and branch change, the words of Dante before the inferno are rather apt: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’