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Way Beyond Kicking Tires

BMW Oracle Racing goes all out to convince Newport the team is seriously re-considering the city as the host for the 34th America's Cup.

December 21, 2010
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**As Monday’s meeting of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation broke up, I sidled up to Tom Ehman of BMW Oracle Racing and put it as straight as I could.

“Are you just kicking tires?”**

He looked me straight in the eye and shook his head.

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“No, we’re way beyond that,” said Ehman. “I went all the way to Michigan [his native state], came back here. We brought a bunch of people in here, spent a lot of money. Larry [Ellison] has a house here.

“We’re looking for the best possible facilities that will happen reliably on July of 2012 and in a way that’s not expensive.”

Among the BMW Oracle Racing officials that visited Rhode Island last week were COO Stephen Barclay, Craig Thompson, CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority, the organization tasked with running the event, and Iain Murray, the Australian Cup skipper from 1987 who will serve as regatta director for the contest.

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But does this mean they are serious in their intentions; and not simply looking for leverage to get San Francisco to sweeten the deal. Who knows?

To his colleagues, Ehman is “The Chairman,” a man who’s experience working behind the scenes of the America’s Cup dates back to 1983. Others in the America’s Cup circle call him, not to his face, however, by less salutatory nicknames. Regardless of his reputation, he works for Larry Ellison and BMW Oracle Racing. And while he has an affinity for Newport—he’ll remind just about anyone who asks about Newport that he spent a number of years here in the late 70s and early 80s and was one of the founding forces behind Sail Newport, the public sailing facility that rose up when the Cup left in 1983—his job is to get the best deal for his team. If cozying up to Rhode Island without any serious intentions of consummating the deal—again—serves a purpose, then he would be negligent in not doing so.

Hopefully Keith Stokes and the rest of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation had some hefty grains of salt in their pockets, though their abject enthusiasm, and Stokes’ irrepressible optimism would seem to indicate the state is all in.

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“As a Newporter, I’ve always believed that San Francisco was a stalking horse for Newport,” Stokes said with a slight grin Monday evening. “I have absolute confidence in my community and who we are and our identity in sailing.”

However, the likelihood of last week’s multifaceted reconnaissance mission being a large charade seems to be sinking slowly. For one, the offer approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last week has been deemed by multiple people inside BMW Oracle Racing as not acceptable because it puts too much financial risk onto the event authority, which would need to somehow come up with close to $300 million for the required infrastructure. The numbers for a Cup Match in Newport are a small fraction of that.

“We’re not looking for public funding of teams or the event,” said Ehman. “We’ll go out and get sponsors and television. What we’re looking for is shoreside facilities for a world-class event. That’s become expensive in San Francisco. And it looks like it’s available here, now, at a very reasonable rate to everyone in what could be a world-class event facility.”

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Secondly, the current vision for the America’s Cup in Newport is drastically different than what was bounced about last spring on the third floor of Newport’s city hall during the heady meetings of the America’s Cup Planning Committee. Gone are the eight team bases lining the eastern flank of the fort. The current plan calls for a largely temporary set-up utilizing the parking lot just south of the park, essentially from Sail Newport’s hoists north to the fort, for the necessary team-related infrastructure. The Fort itself would host VIP, media operations, and some, or all, of the public America’s Cup village. Many of the facilities erected for the event would be temporary in nature and some teams would look elsewhere around Newport Harbor, or the East Passage, for their compounds, though compounds of the scale seen in Valencia or Auckland are not expected due to the traveling circus nature of the 34th America’s Cup.

Most interestingly, at least for any true fan of sailing, the bulk of the regatta—and the Cup match in its entirety—would be sailed in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, from the choke point off Castle Hill to Gould Island north of the Pell Bridge. This venue was used for the UBS Challenge between Alinghi and BMW Oracle Racing back in 2004. It was a crowded course for 12-knot leadmines. It will be downright claustrophobic for 25-knot catamarans. However, Ehman said Murray, the regatta director, has surveyed the lower East Passage and said that the event could be held within its confines. The fleet racing, a new addition to the America’s Cup in 2007, but one that will likely continue give the excitement it generated, Ehman was less sure of.

While it would compromise the racing—at least as traditionalists see it—it would provide for fabulous spectating and provide a comparable number of amazing vantage points to San Francisco Bay—which has long held the lofty status of being the best sailing arena in the world—if not the outright number of eyeballs residing within view of the regatta.

The venue, said Ehman, would need to be ready for two regattas in the late summer of 2012. These 9-day events would give the teams the opportunity to race onsite before 2013 when the challenger (and possibly defender) elimination series would take place on site, with the Cup match slated for September

Finally, there is the obviously strained relationship between BMW Oracle Racing and San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors; BMW Oracle Racing personnel have bandied about the word “exasperated.” The BOS voted for the latest deal a week ago. That deal clearly isn’t to BMW Oracle Racing’s liking. With a Dec. 31 deadline to announce the venue, the ponderous local politics of San Francisco may prevent any significant changes from getting approved. The machinations of the Newport bid, for whatever reason, seem more streamlined. From senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, to governor-elect Lincoln Chaffee, to Stokes, to state senate president Teresa Paiva-Weed (of Newport), everyone involved with the Rhode Island bid seems to be marching in lockstep: “We want it. What can we do to make this happen?”

Will that be enough? Rhode Island may not be the underdog many would think it is: one RI-sponsored survey showed that when you go out 100 miles, Rhode Island matches San Francisco in terms of hotel rooms and other amenities and is well above it well it comes to per captia income. However, it still seems hard to picture BMW Oracle Racing turning down the hometown bid of San Francisco, its predictable, punchy winds, and the millions of people who live within sight of the racecourse. But then, again, this is the America’s Cup. Nothing should surprise anyone anymore. One way or the other (or the other, Ehman mentioned Italy was still in contention and dropped casually that a city in the Middle East was/is a venue candidate), we should have an answer by the end of the month.

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