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Five Ways to Improve the America’s Cup

What can sailing learn from Mark Cuban (left), Britney Spears, and NASCAR? Well read on because we've got a few unique ideas on how the sport can really capitalize on the 2007 America's Cup.

March 22, 2007
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CubanFirstBeat

I know what sailing really needs. It’s not a made-for-TV professional circuit, a hot new one-design, a simpler set of racing rules, or a grand-prix rating formula that encourages fast, fun boats. Sailing could certainly use all those things. But it really needs something else.

It hit me recently while trying to decide whether to open the latest issue of Star magazine-my wife bought it-and find about why Britney Spears has gotten two new tattoos, shaved her head, gone on an all-night bender, and checked into, out of, and back into rehab.

What, you hadn’t heard? She really did all that. And she did it in like two days flat. That’s a lifetime of wrong turns for most people. But, is anyone surprised Britney has become the latest celebrity train wreck? She’s a former child TV actor who was molded into an over-sexed teenage singing sensation not long after she hit puberty. At 25, she’s twice divorced, with two kids by a do-nothing ex-husband who used her to get famous and now stars in commercials that lampoon the fact that he used his wife to get famous. To reignite her flagging career, she decided to pal around with Paris Hilton and flash her coochie to celebrity photographers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’d rather read about what isn’t behind her recent mental meltdown. At least the article would be shorter…but I digress.

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Back to what sailing really needs. The sport needs to sharpen its edge. I know that’s a little obtuse. What exactly is edge? And how do you sharpen it? Well, let me explain. While staring at Britney’s half-shorn head-it was on the cover, I never did read the article-I had one of those peculiar fantasy moments where I wondered what if Britney were a professional sailor. What would her recent actions say about our sport? Well for one thing, that sailing is a stressful dog-eat-dog sport that drives its top participants to the edge of insanity. This would do wonders for sailing’s street cred-which currently hovers just ahead of shuffleboard, in case you’re scoring at home. When it comes to pulling in the American TV audience, street cred is essential. Sailors, especially those racing boats for a living, project an image that’s too nice, too balanced, too, well, normal. It’s a somewhat sad commentary on our society, but, hey, you can either adapt to the changing world, or get left behind.

Before I get too far, is anyone surprised that Britney struggled with rehab? After all she made millions with a song titled, “Oops, I did it again.”

Back on topic, how can we convince everyone about the thrill, danger, and challenge in our sport when the lead protagonists are responsible middle-aged family men like Ed Baird? Compare Baird to Adam “Pacman” Jones, an American football star who reportedly instigated a recent triple shooting in Las Vegas by throwing fistfuls of cash on the stage at a strip club and getting upset when the dancers tried to pick it up.

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I’m not condoning Pacman’s behavior, but if I had to choose blindly between watching a sport played by Pacman or one by Ed Baird, there’s little doubt about which I think would be more exciting. If it takes being as crazy as Pacman to be good at his sport of choice, well then, that’s something I must see.

With this in mind, I did some thinking. The America’s Cup is coming up soon and it could be the biggest thing the sport has ever seen. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much. So we can’t be satisfied with simply being bigger than previous sailing events. The sport needs to jump two levels, at least, in Valencia this spring.

To do this, we need the help of a few professional sailors willing to take one for the team. Not their team, but our team, the sport of sailing. They need to routinely go beyond the bounds of normal behavior, tap into their inner psychotic athlete. When the non-sailing public starts to see that these guys really are partially insane they’ll develop a newfound respect for the sport. And if rap music has taught me anything-which is itself a legitimate question-it’s that respect is everything.

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My plan’s a little unorthodox. The National Football League is wringing its hands over what to do with Jones, who’s had a dozen confrontations with the authorities in his two years in the league. But the NFL is working from a position of power. Everyone knows you must be insane to play that sport. Sailing needs to grab a little bit of that juju. So here are a few ideas, and a few nominees, to help sailing build its anemic rep. And remember, before you start to protest, it’s for the common good.

  1. Develop some posses: How can we expect sports fans to take our sport seriously when our top stars are not ensconced in a protective shield of sycophants and hangers-on? At least one sailor on each syndicate must develop a posse. We’ll start with Alinghi helmsman Peter Holmberg. With an earring and hailing from an underdog sailing country-in the context of the Cup, anywhere but New Zealand-he’s as radical as they come on Alinghi. But it’s time to step it up. He needs to import a dozen of his friends from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Valencia and have them surround him at all times. A posse is a fluid entity, people come and people go, but Holmberg’s will have a few key components. He’ll need a mouthpiece to make thinly veiled threats about what will happen if Alinghi doesn’t give his man the proper respect and make him the starting helmsman for the America’s Cup. Another member will be tasked with carrying around a portable stereo blasting tunes by homegrown U.S.V.I. recording artists. Finally, he’ll need a bodyguard, who will become essential once a few other sailors develop their own posses and we have the inevitable America’s Cup Harbour turf war, a bona fide ratings bonanza.
  1. Refer to oneself in the third person: This is by far my favorite trait of superstar athletes. It never gets old. James Spithill is a perfect choice. Now driving for his third America’s Cup campaign-and a former Melges 24 and match-racing world champion-Spithill has proven his talent many times over. The problem is he’s too nice. He’s liked by his teammates, loyal to guys who’ve sailed with him for years, he even politely answers media questions. Now all this is great if you’re looking for a son-in-law. But we’re looking for a superstar, and that requires a lot more attitude. Spithill can start by referring to himself in the third person in all conversations with the media. To get him started I’ve drafted a few sample replies. A certain amount of detachment from reality is essential. So is the occasional nonexistent word.

Media: “James, you seemed to have your way with Victory Challenge in the prestart. Were you happy with where you crossed the starting line?”

Spithill: “Jimmy was quite pleased with the start. Jimmy put the hurt on Victory Challenge early and often. That was the plan and Jimmy executed it to perfelection.”

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Media: “James on the second beat, you lost 30 seconds of your lead. What happened?”

Spithill: “Well, Jimmy can’t do everything, he just drives the boat. Jimmy tried his hardest, but maybe you should ask some of the other guys on the boat why they were letting Jimmy down with their performances. OK, that’s it. Jimmy needs to get his massage.”

3. More cheating, more creative punishments: NASCAR teams have turned cheating into another form of competition. Despite the sport’s recent “crackdown,” the punishments for rules infraction remains so toothless-usually a suspension of the crew chief and a fine-that teams are certainly still living by the sport’s unofficial motto, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” Fans love the extra level of intrigue it brings to the sport. The first step is for America’s Cup Management to relax the penalties a bit and simplify the process. No more courts or jury hearings, just elect a Cup Commish, a dean of discipline, if you will, to mete out punishment. Now I know what you’re thinking, where would we find such a fair-minded, levelheaded individual to take such a thankless job? However, the real question is why would we want to find such a person? We need someone with a few axes to grind, a skeleton or two in the closet, a hair-trigger temper, and, if we’re lucky, a substance abuse problem. The punishments would change drastically. No more loss of sail buttons or regatta points, or fines. No I’m thinking more along the lines of Fear Factor. For example, during a routine inspection it is discovered that syndicate A has made some illegal modifications to their bilges. Punishment: the team’s boatbuilder spends the next day in the stocks in the center of the syndicate row. Or if a team is caught taking photographs from inside the 200-meter barrier, then a member of the syndicate’s design team has to swim across the America’s Cup harbor and back. For this position creativity is a most important trait.

  1. Cubanize one syndicate head: Mark Cuban, a dot-com billionaire, is the most famous owner in the National Basketball Association. People tune in just to see what sort of fit he’s going to pitch if his Dallas Mavericks lose or how he’s going to celebrate when they win. He once made headlines by insulting Dairy Queen employees and then working at one a few days later to show there were no hard feelings. By and large, America’s Cup syndicate heads remain behind the scenes. We need one to step forward and make himself infamous (most already are famous to some extent.). This seems perfect for Larry Ellison, but he’s done so well on his own, so why mess with success. He now needs a worthy rival. I like Hugo Stenbeck (at left) of Victory Challenge for this role. He’s young, attractive, and he got his money, and the syndicate, the old fashioned way, he inherited them. To get Hugo started, I’ve tasked him with personally insulting, via the media, every other syndicate head by the start of the first Round Robin. Start with Bertarelli. Say he throws like a girl.

5. Don’t try so darn hard: Team sports make it difficult for talented individuals to truly shine. Difficult, that is, unless they’re smart about it, like American footballer Randy Moss. Just to ensure that people know how good he can be when he really tries, Moss takes off a half dozen or more plays each game. While this infuriates his coaches, it makes it very easy for the casual sports observer to see how important Moss is to his team. When he tries, touchdown. When he coasts, sack. Or something like that. America’s Cup crews are just too consistent, too smooth. It all looks too darn easy. So I nominate the BMW Oracle team to slack off on a few beats this spring. I’m not saying they should throw any races, but during a drubbing of China Team, for example, the trimmers and grinders could go at one-quarter speed for a series of tacks and really show the public that this sailing thing isn’t nearly as easy as they make it look most of the time.

I’ve got plenty more ideas, but I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. You may think there’s no way that any sailors would ever stoop to the level of the spoiled sociopaths playing in the NFL or the NBA. But just the other day a friend of mine shared a little inside scoop from Valencia. He said a friend of his, who works for one of the syndicates, had told him that the competition between the two sailors in contention for the team’s helmsman position had grown so heated they were no longer speaking to each other. “They’re acting like children,” my friend said, relaying a quote from his source, and frowning for emphasis. I smiled. It’s not much, I thought, but it’s a start.

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