Fact: In terms of both viewers and economic impact, the America's Cup is the third biggest sporting event in the world, after the Olympics and the World Cup. So why does it seem like forever since anyone has seen the races?
Let's recap. For 125 years no one cared about the America's Cup outside of a few Topsider-wearing fossils in yacht clubs. That's because the U.S. owned it. From 1851 on, a boat representing the New York Yacht Club took home the hardware every time. Finally, in 1983, the U.S. lost the Cup to Australia II. Suddenly it became a matter of national pride to regain sports' oldest active international trophy. A fledgling ESPN grabbed the rights and threw blanket coverage over the '87 event. For a few heady weeks Americans talked about luffing, beating and coming about with an enthusiasm now reserved for the private lives of Kardashians.
But by 1995, when New Zealand's Black Magic won the Cup, the reasons the event had languished in the shadows were clear. Start times were best-guess—hours could pass waiting for wind. Races took place far offshore, out of sight of spectators. Race duration varied with wind speed and course length, which didn't work well for TV windows. And technical details of the boats became such a factor that the entire operation devolved into a series of lawsuits between billionaires. ESPN moved on. Most everyone else did too.
Not Larry Ellison (left). In 2000, the Oracle founder, one of the richest people in the U.S. and an avid sailor, set out to reclaim the Cup. Ten years and at least $300 million later his Team Oracle beat Alinghi 5.
As Cup holder, Ellison had the right not only to pick the time and place of the next competition, but also to set the rules. He chose to remake the sport. First, he established the America's Cup Event Authority, an independent body that would administer the race. He also established a competitor's council, with a seat for each challenger, to arbitrate issues. Then he established a single boat design for all teams. These 72-foot winged-sail catamarans can perform in winds as light as five mph and as gusty as 35 mph. The new boat allowed Team Oracle to pick San Francisco Bay as the site of the next Cup regatta, where thousands could line the shore watching yachts scoot around Alcatraz with the Golden Gate as backdrop. The team devised a system by which officials could alter the length of the course until just before the start, giving some control over the length of the races, making the event more TV-friendly.
Organizers set the Louis Vuitton Cup, the series of races that determines the final challenger, for next summer, and the Cup itself for September 2013, a year with no other major international sporting events. To give teams time with the new design and to build anticipation, they established the America's Cup World Series, a 10-race circuit that runs from 2011 to mid '13, on identical 45-footers (above). The sixth leg of the series takes place next week in Newport, R.I.
Best of all, Ellison created incentives (money!) for future winners to sustain the new format. Now, he has to hope that super boats that can sail near shore and on schedule will be incentive enough for Americans to tune in again.