America's Cup: headed for the rocks? '92 champ proposes changes to save race

OUTDOORS

March 28, 1993|By Peter Baker

Late last spring, Bill Koch stood atop the yachting world as the successful defender of the America's Cup. This spring, Koch, a multi-millionaire American businessman, is certain that the cost of retaining yachting's oldest trophy is too great.

And unless changes can be made in the Cup competition and the elimination trials for defenders and challengers, he also is certain that his group won't be back to defend in 1995.

Koch spent $68 million on his America3 campaign and wiped out Il Moro de Venezia, the Italian synd- icate that reportedly spent many millions more.

Along the way to the America's Cup match off San Diego, a slew of challenger syndicates, Koch and hometown favorite Dennis Conner spent an estimated $500 million.

What did the sport of sailing and Koch get in return?

Not enough.

Koch sees several problems with the America's Cup and the trials, and unless the competitors can change with the times, he says the Cup competition might fade away.

"Under the present setup and in its present venue," Koch said last week by telephone from Colorado, "I think the Cup is dying."

To invigorate interest in the Cup, Koch has been lobbying for smaller, less expensive boats, a common compound for defender and challenger syndicates, a reduction in the racing schedule from six months to two and a possible change of venue after each Cup series.

From a home-team standpoint, the current Cup system has worked extremely well for more than 150 years, with the United States losing the Cup only in 1983.

But it was the 1987 Cup series in Fremantle, Australia, that set the yachting world on its ear -- 13 challenger syndicates and four defender groups were berthed in Fremantle harbor, and six of the challengers were U.S. teams.

Eventually, Conner and Stars and Stripes beat Kookaburra III four straight and the Cup returned to the United States in the care of the San Diego Yacht Club, where it has been since.

In 1987, Koch said, televised competition drew 1.4 million viewers. In 1988 there were 860,000 viewers, and in 1992 there were 841,000.

"I think there are two equally important influences," Koch said of the last Cup, which was sailed in the new, 75-foot International America's Cup Class boats and drew only two defender syndicates.

"One is that there was no regional interest. People viewed it as a local yacht club event. The people in New York certainly didn't care whether San Diego won or lost. Nor did the people in Boston.

"The second thing is that it is viewed as a rich man's sport between two extremely wealthy individuals -- and who cares whether Marge Schott competes against George Steinbrenner. They do care whether the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox.

"The owners are irrelevant. It is the name of the team and the identity of the city that team represents that is important."

To increase regional interest, Koch would change the rules so that the site of the next Cup would be selected by either a successful challenger or defender.

Currently, no matter which American group was to successfully defend the Cup, the venue would be determined by the San Diego Yacht Club. If a challenger were to win the Cup, the next series would be held at a site of its choosing.

"When the venue was up for grabs in 1987, the six syndicates from the United States raised $57 million," said Koch, who has commissioned an extensive market study on the Cup. "In 1992, when there were only two syndicates, we were only able to raise a total of $27 million outside of the money that I put up."

His study shows that as long as the venue is San Diego, the entire event commands only about $30 million from sponsors. But if the venue was changeable, sponsor money could increase by $30 million to $60 million.

Koch said that he has had contact with several challenging syndicates and all agree that rising costs and lagging interest are making fund-raising increasingly difficult.

Sponsorship dollars, of course, equate to technology, services and boats -- and the type of boat raced determines how many dollars are needed for each.

"My main thing, aside from changing the venue, is to make the boats smaller, shrink the boats from 75 feet to, say, 55 feet," Koch said.

"The reason for that is that the cost of the boat goes up with the cube of the size, and not only does the cost of the boat itself go up, but the associated costs go way up."

Smaller boats mean smaller compounds, smaller travel lifts, smaller shore crews, less expensive sails and rigs and so on.

"A 75-foot boat costs $5 million, a 55-foot boat would probably cost $1 million," Koch said. "Not only that, but you wouldn't need 16 crew members, you would need eight."

Koch, who has been very successful in Maxi-boat racing with his Matadors, claims to have the best technology and the fastest boats in the IACC. Yet, in order to keep up the incremental increase in boat speed for the 1995 Cup, Koch estimates it will cost another $30 million to $35 million.

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