Little Rhody’s Big Fumble
Little Rhody’s Big Fumble
When Rhode Island re-joined the host city competition for the 34th America’s Cup, this sailor stepped up to help. Unfortunately, the state couldn’t close the deal. "Gaining Bearing" from our March 2011 issue.
December was a crazy month. In addition to the holidays and my responsibilities with PUMA Ocean Racing, I was also involved with Rhode Island’s bid to host the 34th America’s Cup. I decided to lend a hand to this effort because I was sick of reading about the financial woes of my home state every morning when I retrieved the Providence Journal from the end of my driveway. The Cup match was the golden goose that this state desperately needed, and it was time to take a stand. I have nothing against San Francisco, which remains one of my all-time favorite places to sail and will be a great place to host the Cup.
What an interesting ride it was for the smallest state in the union. Rhode Island has the history to warrant consideration for the next America’s Cup. But what about the necessary infrastructure and commercial attributes? That is what it takes now. Sailing is becoming big business, and the world is taking notice that large racing events bring in big bucks.
Just look at the sponsors who are entering and staying in the game. Our Volvo Ocean Race campaign is the largest marketing expenditure in PUMA history. Considered one of sports “Big 3” along with Nike and Adidas, PUMA has its tentacles into all kinds of sports. But it chose the Volvo Ocean Race as its frontline global marketing event.
Rhode Island made a big push to bring to Newport the only North American stopover for the 2011-’12 Volvo Ocean Race. I was not too involved in this effort. PUMA didn’t want to jump into the fray; either Miami or Newport would’ve been fine from its perspective.
WayPoint Rhode Island, a nonprofit group set up to handle the bid, asked the state government for assistance with public land and a simple financial guarantee. The pitch was simple: A VOR stopover has a proven track record of generating a cash influx of $50 to 75 million. And this would be in May, before the summer tourism season ramped up.
And what was the state’s response? “Here is a bit of land, but don’t ask for money.” No one in the state’s political hierarchy could see that a small investment would generate a large return.
The end result: The Volvo Ocean Race said, “Thanks, but no thanks, Newport. Miami, here we come.” And another depressing story in the Providence Journal.
The natural attributes of Newport and Rhode Island—the history, the marine infrastructure, the large boating population— appeal to these international events. But that isn’t enough. Sailing events can be massive money producers for local economies. Wooing them often requires an upfront cash investment or, at least, a low-cost, high-quality facility to host the event.
Those can be hard to find in the United States. Tourism may be the fourth largest revenue producer in Rhode Island. But it has always been a struggle to get the government officials to see that the perceived “rich man’s sport” is a cash cow for the average taxpayers of the state.
A few months afer losing the Volvo stopover bid, along came the America’s Cup. Rhode Island was an early entrant in the venue selection sweepstakes, but was dropped from contention last July when Oracle Racing anointed San Francisco as the lone U.S. candidate city.
Little Rhody was brought back into the discussion in early December when the negotiations between Oracle Racing and San Francisco hit a snag. This set up an amazing round of fairly public site visits and negotiations culminating in a lastminute announcement on Dec. 31, 2010, that the Cup would in fact be held on San Francisco Bay afer all.