By Locking Out Media, Alinghi Has Hurt the America's Cup and the Sport

With the world waiting eagerly for the first race of the 32nd America's Cup, Alinghi deals sailing a harsh blow by severely restricting the media's access to its sailors in advance of the racing.

AC07_0621_Fortress
Ivo Rovira/alinghi

Four years ago, I sat in a crowded press conference room off Auckland's Viaduct Basin and listened to Ernesto Bertarelli, Michel Bonnefous, and Russell Coutts outline Alinghi's rather radical plans for the future of the America's Cup. It included regular competition in between America's Cup matches and dissolution of the residency requirement.Many of my colleagues had their doubts. How could a team from Switzerland hold the Cup in another country? What would the Cup be if the teams didn't have any national identity? Wouldn't having the defender race the challengers before the match compromise the appeal of such a unique event? I, however, felt that Alinghi was on the right track, and its plans would serve the Cup and the sport well. I said as much in this story.For the past four years, I've stood proudly by my words. With the 32nd America's Cup finally at hand, however, I'm wondering if maybe I should've kept my mouth shut, my fingers still; if maybe my more senior colleagues were right to question the team's plans and its motivations.With the world waiting to hear about the America's Cup, to get excited, to get interested in a premiere sporting event, the organization that vowed to bring sailing to the level of other top-shelf professional sports has instead dealt the sport a stinging backhand by locking down its sailors and severely limiting media access to the team. As one of my colleagues said to me, they've done whatever they can to "suck the life out of this event." Three weeks ago, I requested an interview with helmsman Ed Baird. With BMW Oracle Racing eliminated from the Cup, I was eager to promote as many of the American sailors on other teams as possible. My goal was to ensure that casual sailing fans in the United States realized that even without Larry Ellison's team, there were still plenty of reasons to tune in for the America's Cup.My request was flatly denied. I was told that the helmsmen-Baird and Peter Holmberg, of the U.S. Virgin Islands-wouldn't be doing any interviews in advance of the Cup.Had I made this request on behalf of Sailing World, I wouldn't have been that alarmed. Our readership is well aware of the America's Cup. But I've also done some writing for USA Today, whose readership is, for the most part, the exact opposite.Things got even worse on Monday when I returned from a brief vacation and called to set up some interviews for preview stories in USA Today and on SailingWorld.com. I was told there would be no interviews with any sailors this week. I was incredulous.Certainly part of my frustration stemmed from the fact that this only made my job more difficult. But my primary complaint is that after the promises and effort Alinghi made to turn the America's Cup into a sustainable grand-prix sporting event, how could the syndicate pull such a bush-league maneuver? In what other major professional sport are the athletes sequestered from the press for weeks before a big game? Emirates Team New Zealand tactician Terry Hutchinson happily gave me 20 minutes on the phone on Tuesday.On Thursday we were informed that Alinghi would, as required by America's Cup Management, send two sailors to the daily post-race press conference. But anything above and beyond that-any one-on-one time, any specific interview requests-would be addressed on a per case basis. Given how the team has handled things so far, that's basically a "no."If sailing wants to join the big time, then it's time for the participants to act like it. Part of being a professional athlete is dealing with the press. Somehow Alinghi must have missed that memo, which is rather ironic considering how much the team embraced the press three years ago in Auckland. I guess the syndicate felt it had something to gain then.For comparison, here's a snippet of the National Football League's press policy for the week before the conference championships games, which select the two teams for the Super Bowl:"The four teams in the conference-championship games are required to adhere to media requirements established by the league office for Wednesday through Sunday of championship game week. This will include open locker room periods on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday plus press conference and conference call availabilities on those days at the team facility with key club personnel. The head coach and quarterback must be available in the press conferences at the team facility on Wednesday and Friday at a minimum."The pre-competition hype is important for any big sporting event. Just think of the buildup that precedes a Super Bowl. It starts as soon as the conference championships are finished and includes analysis, personality profiles, features, etc. All of these stories require the input of the athletes involved. Sailing's window is one of the smallest of any sport-one week every three years. To ignore this opportunity the way Alinghi has is almost criminal.By the time you read this column, Alinghi will have had a press conference and announced who's going to sail SUI-100 in its defense of the America's Cup. In fact, the story of that press conference may already be posted on this website. I guess we should thank the syndicate for taking time from its busy schedule to give us the time of day.However, with just over 24 hours until the first start, there's only so much we can do, especially since the racing will start at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning on the East Coast of the United States. Building the interest of the casual fan takes days, not hours. With four years to plan for this two-week regatta, it's mind-boggling that Alinghi couldn't have spared us a few moments each day this week to help promote the sport. After all, the team said that was its goal four years ago. It's a shame they've forgotten that promise.