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Sham on Them
E.M. Swift
April 17, 1995
By changing rules as it sails along, the America's Cup has lost its place on the sports map
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April 17, 1995

Sham On Them

By changing rules as it sails along, the America's Cup has lost its place on the sports map

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In the 1974 film Bang the Drum Slowly, one of the characters, a baseball pitcher named Henry Wiggen, hustles unsuspecting fans by playing a card game called TEGWAR—The Exciting Game Without Any Rules. The slick-talking Wiggen missed his calling. He should be sailing in the America's Cup.

I almost slipped up and wrote, a sporting event called the America's Cup. The America's Cup isn't a sporting event. Sporting events have rules. They have lines that can't be crossed without penalty, and time limits that can't be exceeded. The end of the season is the end of the season. To enforce the rules, sporting events have referees, umpires or judges who make unambiguous decisions: safe or out, fair or foul, good or bad. Winners and losers emerge. Sports fans like it that way.

The America's Cup operates on a different theory. Rules are made to be negotiated. Getting one's boat across the line first is only a small part of the campaign. Race results are protested, appealed and scrutinized for days under threats of legal action. Rules agreed to by all parties in January are flushed down the toilet in April, and a new set of rules is negotiated. Then all the parties shake hands, clap one another on the back and assure a bewildered world that what has just transpired was fair and for the betterment of the sport.

There I go again. I keep thinking the America's Cup is a sporting event. The most recent example that it is not came on April 4 when the San Diego Yacht Club in effect declared a mistrial of the trials. The two biggest names in the America's Cup, Dennis Conner and Bill Koch, were poised to meet in a one-race sail-off that would end the 12-race defender's semifinals, a three-boat round-robin that had started on March 18. The winner would advance to the defender's finals against Young America, which had already secured a spot in the finals by finishing the semis with the highest point total. The Conner-Koch loser would go home.

The prospect of a sail-off actually generated some interest in the interminable Cup preliminaries. Would Koch's Mighty Mary, sailed by 15 women and one man, knock off Mr. America's Cup himself, a living, breathing male chauvinist pig? Tune to ESPN at 4 p.m. EDT for live coverage.

Ah, but neither Conner nor Koch was ready to go home. Awaiting the loser was not only humiliation but, worse, the wrath of his corporate sponsors, who were distressed that their floating billboards would be packed away earlier than expected. So even as ESPN was promoting this sail-off, backroom negotiations were being held among the three U.S. syndicates. Two hours before the race they agreed on a new format that rendered the three months of sailing to that date all but meaningless. Now, instead of a best-of-11 series between two boats in the defender's finals, all three yachts will advance to a 12-race round-robin, with Young America beginning the finals with two points, Mighty Mary with one point (for having beaten Conner in the anticlimatic sail-off) and Conner's Stars & Stripes with no points.

All three boats got something they wanted. For Conner, increased exposure for his sponsors. For Koch, more time for his crew to get used to Mighty Mary, which had become available only six weeks earlier. For Young America, an advantage going into the final round. The San Diego Yacht Club claimed the change would ensure that the strongest defender would represent the U.S. in the Cup finals. Accusations by the press that the change undermined the credibility of the event were dismissed as the imprecations of small minds. "We undersell the America's Cup if we think it's as simple as a tennis tournament," says John Marshall, president of PACT 95, the syndicate that owns Young America. "It's much more complex. Negotiation is part of the competition."

What a concept. Braves-Twins, tie score in the ninth, Game 7, 1991 World Series. A commissioner's timeout is called. The Series is extended to best of 13.

Rangers-Devils, Game 7, 1994 NHL Eastern Conference finals. Sudden-death overtime. Commissioner Gary Bettman sees his dream of the first Ranger Stanley Cup in 54 years possibly disappearing on a fluke New Jersey goal. Commissioner's timeout. The principals decide both teams will advance to the Cup finals for a three-team round-robin against the Canucks. But the Canucks will start every game with a 1-0 lead.

"It's unsettling for sports fans to see the rules changed," says Marshall. "But for Cup fans it's not unsettling. The America's Cup is much more like the real world than it is like sports."

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