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New America's Cup agreement widens gulf with Emirates Team New Zealand

New America's Cup agreement widens gulf with Emirates Team New Zealand

The already gaping gulf between Emirates Team New Zealand and the other five America’s Cup syndicates widened still further yesterday after the Kiwi team took a solitary stand against a deal to lock down the event’s format until 2021. 

The framework agreement, announced by the America’s Cup Event Authority and signed by Cup holders Oracle Team USA, Artemis Racing from Sweden, Groupama Team France, SoftBank Team Japan and Britain’s Land Rover BAR, lays out “a vision for the future of the America’s Cup”.

Under the new agreement whichever of these teams emerges as the winner of the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda this summer would be obligated to abide by “an agreed future protocol” for how future America’s Cup are run.

Among the stipulations laid down in the agreement for the 36th and 37th America’s Cups would be a faster two-year cycle between events and a commitment to use the same America’s Cup Class boat design – 15-metre high performance foiling catamarans – for both events. 

Only Emirates Team New Zealand refused to sign up to the new deal. The Kiwi team yesterday declined our invitation to comment on the announcement but posted this brief statement on their Facebook page: 

“On the future of the America’s Cup: Emirates Team New Zealand believe the future America’s Cup format should be decided by the Defender and Challenger of Record as it has historically been.”   

Which direction the Emirates Team New Zealand would take the America’s Cup in if it wins in Bermuda is yet to be revealed, but the decision not to join the herd on this new initiative puts the Kiwis even more at odds with the other teams than they already are. 

Things have been tense for the last couple of years after the America’s Cup Event Authority failed to follow through on a signed agreement to host part of the challenger series for the 35th America’s Cup in Auckland. 

That move effectively extinguished hopes of government funding for the team as well as setting back negotiations with other sponsors. 

Although there has been no official statement from either side, it has been widely rumoured that a ‘secret’ arbitration panel awarded significant damages to the Kiwis for the America’s Cup Event Authority reneging on the contract, which would have seen the qualifier series taking place next month in Auckland. 

A knock-on effect has been an order banning all the teams from sailing their America’s Cup Class boats for a continuous 28-day period to compensate the Kiwis for the downtime involved in shipping their boat from Auckland to Bermuda.   

At the heart of the new framework agreement – which is endorsed unanimously by the skippers and principals of the American, Swedish, French, Japanese and British teams – is an attempt to provide stability and continuity for the future of the America’s Cup.

Under the terms of the new plan AC36 would be held in 2019 and AC37 in 2021. Each would be preceded by two years of up to 12 America’s Cup World Series events. For the 36th America’s Cup these could start as early as the fourth quarter of this year – a stark contrast to the typically minimum 12-month gap that ensued after previous Cups.

For AC36 the first year of America’s Cup Series events would be raced in the foiling AC45s that were used up until 2016. Thereafter the AC45F boats would be permanently retired and replaced by the full-sized America’s Cup Class boats. The argument here is that this would translate into cost savings for the teams with the added benefit of making the overall America’s Cup concept more straightforward and easy to comprehend for the fans.

For the five teams who signed up the benefits of the new agreement are clear: establishing a rolling schedule for the America’s Cup will make it easier to keep their squads together and offers a more cohesive proposition to sponsors and commercial partners. 

Matt Knighton/SoftBank Team Japan

Less convincing, however, is the assertion that the challenger fleet would be boosted by new teams joining the America’s Cup circus as a result of the new deal. The Italian syndicate Luna Rossa pulled out of this edition of the America's Cup after they believed the rules had been changed arbitrarily by Oracle Team USA. Ironically, the fact that this could not happen going forward is trumpeted in the new agreement. 

According to the announcement on the America’s Cup website: “…several prospective new America’s Cup teams have been briefed on the framework agreement and have expressed significant interest in becoming challengers for AC36 and AC37.”

Whether or not the 30-40 million US$ dollar campaign budget touted in the announcement is indeed “a significant reduction from current team budgets” as claimed by Land Rover BAR CEO Martin Whitmarsh, it’s still hard to imagine how a new team could be competitive against the years of research and development and sailing expertise amassed by the current crop of America’s Cup teams.

Buying a fast base-design is one thing but recruiting a crew from the limited pool of sailors capable of racing the new breed of America’s Cup boats is another – potentially hugely expensive – task.

Emirates Team New Zealand’s refusal to comment further at this point may be down to a fear of falling foul of the unilateral gag imposed on competing teams in the current protocol. Specifically, this obligates them not to make any negative comments about the “present and/or future plans for the America’s Cup competition”. 

Although its refusal to cooperate will be viewed as simply intransigence by the other squads, the Kiwi syndicate’s stubborn stance will make it the de facto champion of America’s Cup traditionalists. 

This movement regularly makes its feelings heard on social media and online forums maintaining that the modern America’s Cup has strayed too far from its roots. They want the racing to be in fast monohulls that are built in-country and crewed by sailors from the home nation.

What the America’s Cup’s future might hold in the wake of an Emirates Team New Zealand win this year is hard to say. Until the squad opens up more it is impossible to ascertain whether they might adopt any part of the framework agreement should they get control of the Cup.  

More certain is that a third consecutive victory for Oracle Team USA would see the competition of the oldest trophy in international sport remain in Bermuda for the next round. 

Jack Abel Smith

Sir Ben Ainslie’s British syndicate has made it clear it is in the America’s Cup for the long haul. The English knight of the realm has built a 100-million-dollar team-base in Portsmouth, England, where, should he manage to wrest the America’s Cup from his 2013 team mates, he would stage the next Cup. 

The future of some other squads is less easy to predict. 

Artemis Racing’s continuance depends solely on whether it’s billionaire owner Torbjörn Törnqvist has the stomach for a third Cup run should he not win again this time around. Likewise, the reportedly limited budget of the French team makes them a far from guaranteed contestant beyond 2017. 

There should be no lack of budget at SoftBank Team Japan as SoftBank CEO, Masayoshi Son, is one of Japan’s richest man. The billionaire entered the America’s Cup at the behest of his friend Larry Ellison but little is known about his commitment beyond this edition. 

Given the absence of the Kiwis and not knowing what sanctions – if any - could be applied if a future America’s Cup winner opted to ignore the newly brokered deal, the framework agreement is more of a statement of an intent to put the America’s Cup on a more sustainable footing. 

Few could argue with the benefit to both the competing teams and the event of the America’s Cup not disappearing into a black hole for a year or more every time somebody lifts the trophy. Rest assured that the Volvo Ocean Race and likely the Vendee Globe organisations are looking closely at how to solve that self-same problem right now.

The danger of course is that along the way the America’s Cup loses its unique essence and ends up just another regatta circuit for the professional sailing elite to earn their livings on. It is a very real problem and one that neither the ‘gang of five’ nor indeed Emirates Team New Zealand have yet proposed a solution to. 

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