The letter was one of those computer-generated appeals for money that begin, "Dear Friend." It rambled on for four typewritten pages about how this cause was worthier than all the other causes that would cross the desk of the reader in the next week or month or year. The difference was that this letter was signed "Sincerely, Walter Cronkite," and it asked for money to support America II, the New York Yacht Club's entry in the America's Cup trials, which began Oct. 5 off Fremantle, Western Australia.
It is a measure of the change that has come to the America's Cup since 1983 that the NYYC is asking strangers for money. Harold Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan must be spinning in their graves. Yet that is what the America's Cup has become, a game so expensive that even the richest sportsmen in the richest country in the world can no longer play it by themselves. Of the 13 challenging syndicates now lined up along the Fremantle waterfront, America II's is the best organized, best equipped and best funded. Yet as recently as August the NYYC syndicate claimed to be $3 million short of the $15 million it needs to pay the bills. The group's goal is to close out fund-raising by the first of the year. "We're bullish on it. We're going to make it," says Casey Wondergem, director of development. No other U.S. syndicate can say that with such certainty.
Because America II was the first American challenger out of the blocks in 1984, it lined up major corporate sponsors quickly. Cadillac and Amway each chipped in $1 million in cash and kind, and Newsweek magazine forked over $1 million in free advertising. What these sponsors got in return was, in effect, bragging rights. Cadillac, for instance, was entitled to name a special, limited-edition America II Eldorado (1,987 of them). Amway, an international giant in the door-to-door-sales field, could associate its line of soaps, cosmetics and household products with an America's Cup challenge and, by inference, with the New York Yacht Club.
Dennis Conner's Sail America challenge from the San Diego Yacht Club was hanging by its syndicated thumbs until a little more than a year ago, when it hired an expert to organize a marketing campaign complete with video presentations. By appealing to corporate patriotism and, ironically, by bearing down hard on the theme of Conner as a winner, the syndicate has signed up seven major sponsors, each of which has contributed between $500,000 and $2 million. The toughest to land was Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser beer, which allowed itself to be wooed for 10 months before relenting in May. Sail America's marketing director, Charles Ward, claims to be within $3.5 million of his syndicate's $15 million budget, which is fortunate because Conner has ordered up four 12-meters, all christened Stars & Stripes, in his search for the perfect boat for Fremantle.
Regionalism has both helped and hindered the six American challengers. While America II has played down its Eastern connection by omitting, whenever possible, reference to the New York Yacht Club in its promotional material and by signing up 34 affiliated yacht clubs scattered from Maine to Texas, Heart of America, the Chicago Yacht Club entry, has trumpeted its Midwesternness at every opportunity. The opening salvo of Heart's fund-raising campaign was a poster depicting a 12-meter yacht sailing through a field of ripened wheat. Buddy Melges, Heart of America's 56-year-old skipper, has crisscrossed the heartland like a born politician, shaking hands, having his picture taken, letting people sign practice sails for $10 a pop, and promising, all the while, to bring the Cup to Lake Michigan in 1991.
Possibly the toughest terrain to plow for funds has been California, where three challenges have been chasing each other in and out of the revolving doors of the state's corporate headquarters in search for support. Conner's San Diego-based syndicate has the edge, since everybody from the executive suite to the typing pool knows that Conner has a personal score to settle with the Australians. Beyond that, Conner's vast experience in 12-meter sailing gives him the look of a winner. Even so, Sail America has had rough sailing. At one point the syndicate received a $200,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation designated to pay the interest on outstanding loans.
Up north, San Francisco's Golden Gate Challenge has played to civic vanity and the region's pride in its position at the cutting edge of computer technology. The syndicate boasts about the 60-odd scientists and academicians who have contributed expertise to its design effort, and skipper Tom Blackaller, 46, paints word pictures of the possibilities for 1991: "Think about it," he says over and over again, "half a million people lined up along the city waterfront to watch the America's Cup being sailed on San Francisco Bay."
The Eagle syndicate, based in Newport Beach, Calif., the heart of fiscally and politically conservative Orange County, has emphasized its philosophical connection to the frugal but spectacularly profitable Los Angeles Olympic Games. The syndicate's executive director, Gary Thomson, was an associate of Peter Ueberroth on the 1984 Olympic organizing committee. One of Thomson's first acts as the syndicate's director was to commission a study predicting the financial benefit Orange County would reap by hosting the America's Cup. Whatever Newport Harbor's fund-raising may lack in pizzazz has been made up for in splashy graphics. The 30-foot-long stylized eagle painted on either side of the boat's hull makes her look fast even when she's tied up at the dock.
Occasionally the six American syndicates have been unable to get out of their own way. American Express had nearly $1 million to give away; all the U.S. syndicates had to do was agree on a formula for sharing the wealth. They couldn't, and after months of trying, American Express gave up. Philip Morris offered to sponsor a 12-meter regatta on San Francisco Bay with donations to the American syndicates based on the outcome of the races. Four syndicates agreed, but two balked, and again a major contributor put its checkbook back in its pocket.
The selling of the America's Cup, which has reached a frenzied peak this year, began in 1974 when Alan Bond, a pudgy 36-year-old millionaire from Perth, Australia, turned up in Newport, R.I., and scandalized the yachting establishment by announcing, "Anyone who considers that racing for the Cup is not a business is a bloody fool."