America's the Name, but the Cup Is No Longer Our Game

Switzerland's Michel Bonnefous, chief executive of America's Cup Management, shared the stage with the America's Cup trophy during a promotional stop last week in Geneva.
Switzerland's Michel Bonnefous, chief executive of America's Cup Management, shared the stage with the America's Cup trophy during a promotional stop last week in Geneva. (By Salvatore Di Nolfi -- Associated Press)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, March 4, 2007

The America's Cup is back, but not as you remember it. Racing starts next month in Valencia, Spain, marking the first time the 154-year-old event has been contested in Europe, but fewer Americans than ever will be involved. Just one team will fly the Stars and Stripes -- billionaire Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle out of San Francisco, and it will have a New Zealander on the helm and a Frenchman calling tactics.

"It's a fact that there are not a lot of Americans in the America's Cup," says Dawn Riley, who's as American as it gets, a fresh-faced blonde hailing from the heartland of Michigan. After three go-rounds representing her native land in sailing's biggest global event, even she has cut the cord.

On April 16, when 11 challengers from nine nations start the first of two round robins in the Mediterranean to narrow the field to four, Riley will wrap herself in the tricolor as general manager and sometime halyard-handler on France's Areva Challenge. How's her French? " Pas mal," Riley says with a sheepish grin. "Not bad. But we speak English on the boat. All the boats do."

She'll join fellow expatriates scattered around Valencia, working for teams from New Zealand, Sweden, Italy and Spain, to name a few. All will be battling to survive two months of elimination rounds for the right to sail in June against the defender, Alinghi, representing land-locked Switzerland, which probably will have an American on the helm and a New Zealander calling tactics.

Confused? Join the club. The America's Cup has come a long way in the 20 years since 13 challengers convened in Fremantle, Australia, for the first defense outside the United States. The New York Yacht Club held the trophy for 132 years before that.

Back then, challengers represented their homelands, with England, Australia, France, Italy, Sweden and others mounting multiple chest-thumping, nationalistic campaigns. When Dennis Conner became the first American to lose the Cup in 1983, as his red-hulled Liberty fell to winged-keel Australia II in seven races, he wept and a nation grieved with him, while Australians cheered in ecstasy half a world away.

Four years later, when he won it back on a gunsmoke blue boat called Stars & Stripes, Conner flew a huge U.S. flag from the backstay as he swept into Fremantle harbor under full sail, a glorious sight. A week after that he was meeting with Ronald Reagan in the White House after a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York.

Those days of national glory are gone, probably forever.

By opening new avenues for commercial sponsorship and broaching for the first time the concept of selecting a venue for the event, rather than simply holding it in the home waters of the winner, Conner ushered in sailing's professional era. An America's Cup compound, which once looked like a shopworn boatyard, today looks more like some international bond-trading firm's squeaky-clean corporate headquarters.

With good reason. The three top challengers in this year's Cup are Emirates Team New Zealand, named for a fast-growing Middle Eastern airline; BMW Oracle, representing a top-end carmaker and a global software dynasty, and Luna Rossa, which springs from the Italian fashion house Prada. Espresso, anyone?

Riley, who passed through Washington last week on a brief U.S. speaking tour touting her team's main sponsor, the French nuclear energy company Areva, says the Cup is no longer a game, it's a business. "The big cost is people," she said, with professional sailors lingering on payrolls for two or three years as the teams build up to the event. Riley signed on with the French in 2002. "It's the longest job I've ever had."

At 34 million euros (about $45 million), Areva's budget is small by comparison to the big three teams, which are said to be spending in excess of $100 million. Areva is a one-boat campaign that stays put in the compound in Valencia, while top teams are building two new boats, the maximum allowed under event rules and training in faraway places such as Dubai and New Zealand through the winter.

But the string is finally running out for some sailors. When racing opens the day after U.S. tax day, seven of 11 challenging teams will be facing elimination in just three weeks. The two round robins, in which each team faces all the others once, run from April 16 to May 7, at which point the field narrows to the top four contenders.

Riley reckons the top three -- Emirates New Zealand, BMW Oracle and Luna Rossa -- are fairly well fixed, though an upset isn't out of the question. The race for fourth place and the last berth in the semifinals, which open May 14, should be hot. Riley says her French team, the Spanish under Polish skipper Karel Jablonski, the Italian entry Mascalzone Latino and Sweden's Victory, under skipper Magnus Holmberg, all have legitimate shots, with first-time efforts from Germany, China and South Africa likely to bring up the rear.

Racing will be on two courses, both within sight of the beach off Valencia and a new America's Cup Park that's been built on the shorefront, complete with bars and a big-screen TV to follow the action more closely.

In that respect, Riley reckons this may be the most spectator-friendly Cup yet. "You don't have to go out on the spectator boats to watch -- you can sit in the bar and see the whole thing," she said.

Just don't look for any crowds of flag-waving Americans with whom to raise a glass when BMW Oracle scores a point. "The nationality thing -- it's completely gone," Riley says. "As an American in the America's Cup, I feel like a minority now."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company