Safe in knowledge, entrenched in experience, drowned in history, most people like what they like. Change is hard to fathom and sits uneasily on those that would rather not upset the applecart. And the changes that are coming in the America’s Cup world are going to take some leaps of faith from the faithful, will alienate the traditionalists but along the way will usher in and welcome a whole new audience to this terrific sailing spectacle.
The pointers have been there since the last hooter went on the final race of the Match in Auckland. Barely had the tow-in begun before the PR offensive of defending the Cup overseas clicked into gear. In reality, behind the scenes, we know now that the process was already well underway to radically change the whole game and take it to professional sports uplands.
Re-watch the interview with Jim Ratcliffe who was mulling ‘going again’ at that time just after Ineos were thumped out of the Challenger series, whilst securing the Challenger of Record status quietly stage left, and all the clues you ever need are there.
He politely railed in that oh-so-Jim way at the nuances and quirks of the Cup, pointed at the dusty Deed of Gift as a handbrake to going global but could see that massive untapped potential lay in the apex of our sport. Thank goodness for those that can see over the horizon.
And in Grant Dalton, Jim found a kindred spirit. The chiselled Kiwi machismo and no-nonsense, no bullsh*t winners’ approach is everything that Jim Ratcliffe would like to be and convey in public but that innate Britishness precludes. Behind the scenes though it’s a very different Ratcliffe to what you see in public. Dalton and Ratcliffe are peas in a pod. They hatched from the same shell. They’re cut from the same cloth.
And the biggest clue of all as to the way the Cup and its participants were going to have to go was and still is, found so encapsulated in the Ineos Sports Group. Sailing is just one part of the cycling, soccer, elite runners, adventuring, rugby and Formula 1 that make up this global sports franchise.
Quickly the other teams recognised the opportunity for cross-pollination, for building something that is just so much more than a challenge every four years for the Ugly Ewer at some singular venue. The chance to branch out, think differently, attract new sponsors, build new audiences, take the spectacle to new territories, bring in athletes from different disciplines, take on challenges that have been burning within and find new, create something not just for AC37 but 38, 39, 40 – this is the new world of America’s Cup team franchises.
We’re going to see a very different Cup to what’s come before. Do not underestimate the closeness of the Defender and the Challenger of Record at this time of change, particularly at the very top, and their determination to go to the next level. Standing still was an option that simply didn’t appeal and was never going to fly with Ineos as the Challenger of Record and the ‘IMBY’ brigade spouting for that back in New Zealand are so far behind the thinking of the visionaries to be almost embarrassing. The sentiment of the Kiwi Home Defence may be right. The intentions may well prove to be good. The execution has been undeniably poor. The PR has been excellent. The timing is four years, at least, out. And the problem is they are grappling for a tiger that left town ages ago.
What’s building in America, Switzerland, Britain, Italy and New Zealand are sports franchises with the capability to tap into multiple markets. Sailing will be the winner from this. The athletes will get a profile that is almost impossible to believe right now. The audience growth will be exponential. Youth and Women’s teams will be thrust into a limelight that will be white hot and lasting. The pathways created to the works teams will be littered with professionalism drawn from multiple sporting sources and you know what? Fun will be back in the America’s Cup. Let’s be honest, the way that AC36 ended with all the Italian acrimony and that ridiculous press conference with the agitated stooges (remember that car crash?) was a throw-back to bygone and hopefully never-to-be-revisited Cups of yore.
Grant Dalton saw that it had to change. Jim Ratcliffe must have been head-scratching at the sheer, rank amateurishness of the whole spectacle. Even Patrizio Bertelli would have been seething. The Americans stayed classy and grateful as they battled their own issues after the Patriot slam but Terry Hutchinson is anything but a fool, and he’d be the first to recognise that things simply had to change. And then into the mix comes the Alinghi franchise with probably the greatest sponsorship supremos on the planet in Red Bull, and that’s the proving point that the Cup is going in a very different direction.
Ernesto Bertarelli could no longer sit on the sidelines and watch as the tide changed in the Cup. Whether this undoubted winner-at-all-costs merchant will prevail in AC37 is largely irrelevant to the franchise that Alinghi and Red Bull are building. That was the key decision here. Get in, build fast, tap into the new audiences, get on the zeitgeist and start creating the platform for the future with an ultimate goal, perhaps in two cycles (who knows?) of securing the Cup again and taking it even further mainstream.
I’m excited to see what’s about to be unveiled. I’m curious at the Amazon/Netflix/Whatever documentary. I’m genuinely intrigued at the shared reconnaissance and how that will be presented for our dissection. I’m equally intrigued to see how the organisers up the communications game – they have to be better than before.
My firm belief is that the AC40 global circuit will be bigger than anything we’ve seen before in sailing and I can’t help but get excited at seeing young teams blasting around and taking the whole foiling discipline stratospheric and analysing that. And what AC37 will do for women’s sailing will be the watershed in the diversity debate that I don’t think can survive any longer than this cycle. Female athletes will be on the AC75s in 2028 without a question. New superstars will be found and AC37 will be the stepping stone regatta in changing our sport forever.
The visionaries are in control and the Cup is changing, morphing, catapulting to the next level. Don’t listen to those that want a reversion to the mean. Embrace the new. Wait for the announcements, sit back and marvel at what’s coming. As Socrates said: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
And on that basis the new America’s Cup is going to be quite something of the spectacular. It will eclipse everything. Watch this space.