It wasn't so long ago that the America's Cup existed on the periphery of our sports consciousness. You know, over there past the Stanley Cup and Davis Cup, by the Ryder Cup, the Walker Cup, protective cups and Kuppenheimer's.
The competition was left to yachting aficionados. Why, even on the sports desks of our newspapers, there was uncertainty over how to spell it. Americas Cup? Americas' Cup? American Cup? Amerika's Cup? (Whoa, sorry, that was a '60s flashback.)
Imagine, an event that sports copy editors were confused about. We're talking about some of the finest minds in journalism. These are dedicated professionals who pore over the copy of the sporting press, making sure every nuance, each turn of the phrase is really good (desk: please insert better adjective). Or, on the other hand, they're a bunch of humorless drones who give little thought to the well-crafted stories they zip through each night on a caffeine high from the 10 Cokes and five coffees they each drink during an eight-hour shift.
But I digress.
In any case, things changed after America lost the America's Cup -- ending the U.S. of A.'s winning streak dating back to the Bronze Age -- and ESPN decided to chronicle the competition to win it back from Australia in 1987.
By the way, just think if our continent had taken Italian adventurer Amerigo Vespucci's last name. We'd be watching the Vespucci's Cup. Shaquille O'Neal would be an All-Vespuccian center. "Vespuccia, Vespuccia, God shed his grace on thee. . . " U-S-V! U-S-V!
But I digress again.
The America's Cup finals between America3 -- as in "America cubed," as in, Mr. Mann, my dog ate my math homework -- and Italy's Il Moro di Venezia begin tomorrow. ESPN is covering the best-of-seven series, as it did the defender's and challenger's competitions. First, however, the opening race goes to network television, "ABC's Wide World of Sports" (channels 13, 7 at 3 p.m.).
Though ESPN is in 59.6 million homes, about 65 percent of the nation's television households, ABC can reach practically the entire viewing audience. That means a lot of people turning on the set and asking, "Hey, Vera, what's that dang thing on the television?"
"We'll have an audience that will be tuning in because finally it's the America's Cup [finals]," said Jed Drake, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for the event. "And because of that larger universe that ABC has, we'll have to take a step back.
"It's that fine line we talked about in Fremantle," Drake said, referring to the 1987 races in Australia and the effort to educate uninitiated viewers while not annoying knowledgeable fans.
ESPN, which is producing the coverage for ABC and then carries the rest of the finals, has a few new wrinkles ready, expanding upon the preliminary telecasts. Both skippers, America3's Buddy Melges and Il Moro's Paul Cayard -- will be miked; in previous races, just one of the skippers wore a microphone. There are also plans for a point-of-view camera carried by a scuba diver, positioned at one or more of the marks on the course.
"[The event] is one in which we push technologies," Drake said. "They don't always work, but failure is sometimes compensated by those that do work."
ESPN's announcing crew, which includes Annapolitan Gary Jobson, uses SailTrack to update the competition. This graphic device takes signals from the yachts to display position on the course, speed and heading.
Among the 11 cameras that shoot each race, the basic view comes from those aboard two helicopters.
"If you were out on the water, it would be difficult to judge with the naked eye who was in front," said America's Cup executive producer Geoff Mason, a Cup competitor in 1962. "In covering this event, I try to strike a balance between being helicopter-wide and being low and dramatic. The pure sailor would like me to be high and wide all the time. The novice wants to have a sense of the dramatic."
Audio from the yachts adds to that drama, Mason said.
"We have such terrific audio coming off the yachts themselves that the viewer feels closer to this event than maybe any other," he said.
Thanks for the tip, Geoff. I'd better run out and buy some deck shoes. And -- urp -- maybe keep that pail next to the couch. Oooooh, my stomach. What time do the NBA playoffs come on?
Wire-to-wire win: ABC's Kentucky Derby telecast was the top-rated sports show last week. The Derby on Saturday drew a rating of 10.3 and a 30 share compared with a 5.7-19 for Sunday's Detroit Pistons-New York Knicks NBA game on NBC and 3.5-12 for Saturday's baseball game, which was either the New York Mets-Atlanta Braves or Texas Rangers-Chicago White Sox on CBS. Ratings measure the percentage of all television households watching a program. Shares measure the percentage among homes where television is in use.