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Opinion: Free Agency Rules are the Root of the Problem

December 7, 2002

The America’s Cup wheels of justice will be grinding away this weekend as an arbitration panel looks into allegations that the OneWorld Challenge violated the America’s Cup protocol. At issue is whether OneWorld illegally obtained and used proprietary design information owned by Team New Zealand. The request for the inquiry was filed by Team Dennis Conner and Italy’s Prada Challenge.

In my view, the issues have merit and need to be resolved. The timing of the filing by Conner is unfortunate because his team was handily defeated by OneWorld 4-0 in the quarterfinal match last week.

To me, there is a larger issue at work here. These problems were set in motion when the America’s Cup managers allowed international free agency to become standard practice. In recent years, designers and sailors skip borders after every Cup match. This trend resembles the free agency in major league sports where one third of a team leaves every year. OneWorld, for example, races with a combination of crew from seven countries. For the public, it is difficult to cheer for a team that is not made up of nationals of the country they represent.

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While sailors simply arrive with their athletic skill, designers bring detailed information on boatspeed secrets. And there in lies the rub. These kind of problems are inevitable unless the America’s Cup organizers insist that the teams are made up of nationals.

The authors of the America’s Cup Deed of Gift specified that the America’s Cup be, “a friendly competition between foreign countries.” The America’s Cup should return to this basic principle.

Happily, the arbitration panel has said it will make a ruling by Monday, December 9, when racing is scheduled to resume.

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The ultimate penalty could be disqualification for OneWorld. It is hard to believe that OneWorld (backed by billionaires Paul Allen and Craig McCaw) could be thrown out of the event. The arbitration panel did spend considerable time on this issue before the races started in October. OneWorld was fined and lost one point in the early rounds. Team Dennis Conner and the Prada Challenge say there is new evidence. And for that we will all have to wait and see what the outcome is.

In the meantime Alinghi (Switzerland) faces Oracle/BMW (USA) in a best of seven match. The winner moves on to the Challenger finals while the loser meets the winner of the OneWorld vs. Prada match. The loser goes home.

Over the past two weeks, the design and sailing teams have been working hard to prepare for the semifinals. The curve ball just might be the weather. Over one third of the days have been lost during earlier racing. The question for the teams is how to configure the design package for the anticipated weather? We’ve learned that the boats seem to be fairly close in speed. The difference has been good sailing. This is certainly the best way to decide what boat ultimately takes on Team New Zealand on February 15, 2003.

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