Sea of chaotic rules roils Cup

Modernization promised if AmericaOne takes it all

February 02, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- In 1851, when the schooner America won the silver pitcher that bears its name, its owners passed the Cup around among themselves for a time and then decided it might be nice to offer it as a perpetual trophy for "friendly competition between nations."

Commodore John Cox Stevens and his colleagues at the New York Yacht Club drew up a Deed of Gift, a weighty legal document that, far from being the basis for "friendly competition," has been the center of nearly 1 1/2 centuries of unrelenting turbulence and quite a bit of rancor and bitterness, jealousy and skullduggery.

The America's Cup, often touted as the pinnacle of the sport of sailing, has become mired in a byzantine muddle of rules and regulations, committees and umpires.

Tom Ehman, the America's Cup rules adviser for the AmericaOne syndicate, thinks it's time there was a change.

"What we need," he said, "is a strategic plan that includes at its core an independent governing body which does not have any conflicts of interest. We have to have one clear set of rules and an on-going professional administration with professional teams."

So far, Ehman's proposals appear to have gone unanswered, which is hardly surprising when one considers the vested interests, power and money -- not to mention egos -- involved.

But Ehman is no longer just a voice crying in the America's Cup wilderness. He has the ear of the man who -- if he wins the Cup in February -- is personally committed to dragging the contest into the 21st Century: Paul Cayard.

"Probably the only way to ensure meaningful change," Ehman said, "is to win the thing and modernize it yourself. That is, bottom line, why I joined Paul Cayard. He shares this vision. Right now, we have a chance of being the challenger and perhaps a shot at winning it.

"If that happens, Paul and the St. Francis Yacht Club are committed to change, and to their credit the New York Yacht Club has expressed interest, as well."

Ehman said he wants to see a "stable and modernized Cup competition.

"We can do a better job of satisfying our customers, the spectators, sponsors, the media and the sailors," he said. "Right now, sponsors won't come in. Look at the prestigious New York Yacht Club, whose syndicate couldn't get a single major corporate cash sponsor.

"On the other hand you've got a guy like [Patrizio] Bertelli, who pays for the entire Italian challenge himself. Why? Because it's his passion, not because it's necessarily a good business decision. Paul [Cayard] struggled to raise the money and made it. The whole thing is plunged into a boom and bust cycle."

Ehman said the only way it can be fixed is if the event is held every year and if the venue is bid on a four- or five-year basis.

"Once people know where the event is going to be four or five years out," he said, "each of the syndicates can go to their potential sponsor pool with a plan built around those venues. Then sponsors will know if the event fits their marketing strategies or not.

"Right now," Ehman said, "sponsors have no idea if there is going to be television, let alone how many viewers there are going to be. They have no way to gauge this buy versus any of the thousands of other marketing options, whether it's billboards, advertising on television, in newspapers or sponsoring cultural or other sporting events."

Ehman is trying to raise awareness in the hope that whoever wins will want to play next time, realize the possibilities and work toward this direction.

"If they don't do it now," he said, "it certainly won't be done in the last week before the Cup match. That's when the defender and the challenger will redo the Cup protocol to their own liking, and they will organize a hip-pocket challenge where clubs get together in a back room someplace and what you get is a titular challenger agreeing to the defender's terms.

"When that happens, you are already into a new cycle with a date, a venue and no one able to change that. The sooner we get at this thing, the better."

Ehman said that once the defender accepts the challenger of record, the challenger and the defender can agree to the other clubs they will or will not allow into the competition. He pointed to the situation in 1988 in which the New Zealand challenger, the hole-in-the-wall Mercury Bay Boating Club, refused to let anyone else in, a fiasco that led to the big boat-catamaran mismatch in San Diego.

Having won the Cup in San Diego in 1995, one of the conditions the New Zealanders quickly wrote into their protocol was that, notwithstanding the long-standing technology rule in which the challengers' equipment must be "designed and built" in their country, they also must have unfettered access to state-of-the-art, American-made sails.

"The New York Yacht Club very much wanted to be the challenger of record," Ehman said. "They didn't have much time to look at this document, let alone consider it. The [New Zealanders] were saying, `If you won't do it, we'll find someone who will.'

"New York was anxious to be challenger of record and went ahead and agreed to it. The defender has enormous power at this point, and the New Zealanders have shown no hesitation in using that power to their best advantage.

"The biggest thing they did," he said, "was to insist that the two challenge finalists have to take their security skirts down in public and reveal the underwater shapes and appendages they have kept hidden all summer. And from that point on, the challengers can't switch boats, yet the Kiwis can.

"What they have at that point is what they must take into the Cup match. Meantime, the New Zealanders have been out on the water watching the challengers, measuring their boats, determining what corner of the rule we are in. They unveil both their boats [at the same time as the challengers], but reserve the right to choose which boat they will use depending upon which of us wins. This gives them a huge advantage."

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