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America’s Cup fever reaches China’s shores

The Auld Mug in China? What once might have sounded like blasphemy is becoming a distinct possibility. Yes, for the first 132 years the America’s Cup was the Americans’ cup, but since Dennis Conner lost it to the Australians in 1983 the ewer has gone cosmo. New Zealand and Switzerland won it twice, keeping it out of the United States for 15 years before software tycoon Larry Ellison won it back last year with a gigantic trimaran.

Former Chinese basketball star Ma Jian (center) trains in San Diego with the sailing team, which needs more money, better sails and more time on the boat to compete with the top teams.

Ironically, Ellison’s point man was Russell Coutts, who won it for New Zealand in 1995 in San Diego (crushing Conner 5-0) and defected from the Kiwis to win it for the Swiss in 2003. Now that it’s their game, Ellison and Coutts are turning it upside down and inside out so that the Cup becomes more digestible for the masses, who know little or nothing about sailboat racing.
In a volatile economy, this might be a tough sell in most places. But it’s less so in China, which still enjoys robust economic growth. If the Chinese ought to buy boats instead of merely building them, they’ll need to be entertained to be enticed. At the very least, they’ll buy what the sponsors have to sell.

Changing the game
Much of getting the Cup to China has to do with the America’s Cup World Series, a new sailing circuit that uses the AC45, an exciting 45-foot catamaran with a wing in place of a conventional mainsail. Races are staged in popular sailing venues to drum up excitement for the next America’s Cup, which will be staged in San Francisco in September 2013.
To be eligible for a Cup challenge, syndicates must participate in the World Series. After two stops in Europe last summer, the series came to San Diego — the last U.S. venue where the America’s Cup was sailed, in 1995. I had a chance to hang with China Team, which is one of several small syndicates that are struggling to keep up with the big guns, such as Ellison’s Oracle Racing; Artemis, from Sweden (the challenger of record); and the perennially strong Team New Zealand.
Though China Team is near the bottom of the totem pole, nobody laughs. First, there’s talent on the squad: Skipper Charlie Ogletree, who won an Olympic silver medal for the United States in the Tornado in 2004, assembled a crew of gifted sailors from Australia, Austria, France and the Netherlands and a couple of Kiwi match racers to do China’s bidding.
Second, taking the World Series to China is a no-brainer. It’s a brand-new game, well produced, tightly controlled, lavishly hyped and painfully expensive, and it desperately needs to find new audiences. Third, it’s made for television and YouTube, which will carry it to new demographics and places. The boats fly a hull in the tiniest whisper of a breeze, and above 25 knots it’s a fight for survival, with pitchpoles and cartwheels thrown in. The on-board cameras bear witness to sailing as a highly athletic endeavor. “The top of the sport has to be removed from the rest,” muses Tim Jeffrey, a former newspaper correspondent who now is Oracle’s PR captain. “If anybody could do it, nobody would watch.”
To make people watch, the races are close to shore and last a maximum of 40 minutes. There are fleet races, match races and speed trials, the nautical equivalent of downhill ski racing. There’s a 500-meter speed strip in front of the grandstands — each team against the clock, two tries, fastest time wins. But the unique selling point of the World Series is the sophisticated broadcast with “augmented reality” that provides the kind of footage that couch potatoes have come to expect from the National Football League and NASCAR.
It happens courtesy of Stan Honey, one of the world’s best navigators and a tech wizard who conceived, among other things, the virtual first-down line on TV for football games. Dozens of cameras on land, on water and in the air capture the boats from every angle while they are being tracked to within an inch by GPS. The live images are supplemented by graphics that show positions, speeds, distances, marks and virtual course boundaries so non-sailors can understand what’s happening. It’s called LiveLine, and it also enables real-time umpiring and real-time race course management.
Forget protest hearings, anchors and buoys. Time is money here. Rod Davis, a Cup hero and coach with Team New Zealand, calls the World Series a show for sponsors, television and the general public. It’s not just a sailing regatta; it’s also a sports property designed to turn a buck. To do that, it needs new markets, and the elephant of new markets is China, which has 1.3 billion people, many of whom have discretional renminbis to spend.

Chinese funding, but few sailors
As a former investment banker with Chase, Standard & Poor’s, Morgan Stanley and the China Development Bank, Wang Chaoyong is one of China’s high rollers. In 2007, he headed the first Chinese America’s Cup challenge, and these days, as chief executive of a venture capital firm, he underwrote the early stages of China Team’s World Series presence. That was enough to get the team there, but it needs additional financing to get over the hump.
At the same time it seeks to establish its authenticity. And that’s the rub: “To be considered a Chinese team by the Chinese, we need Chinese sailors,” explains chief executive Thierry Barot, a French veteran of many Cup campaigns. However, sailing has yet to build a meaningful following in China and the sport lacks domestic talent that is capable of racing an AC45 at the highest level.
Hence, Barot recruits foreign talent and crossover athletes such as the towering Ma Jian, who once was the shooting guard on China’s basketball team. He played in the 1992 Olympics, and one year later he became the first Chinese to play college hoops in the United States, alongside Keith Van Horn at the University of Utah. In 1995, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers but went on to play pro ball in the Philippines and China.
At age 42, Ma still is strong and athletic, but his 6-foot-7 frame is a detriment on a bucking boat that’s hurtling along at 25 knots or more. “The difficult part for me, on the boat you don’t jump and there’s no physical contact, but you need to keep your balance,” says Ma. “Plus, you need to pay attention to what’s happening on the boat and on the water.” It’s a tall order for a rookie, but Ma is confident China Team can make it. “We put on the Olympics. We put on the China Cup Regatta. We are in the Volvo Ocean Race. Why not also in the next Cup? China should do it all.”
Right now it’s all about money. “Given the economic circumstances in Europe and the U.S., I think raising money in China is a better bet right now,” says Andy Hagara, an Austrian Tornado world and European champion who succeeded the Australian Mitch Booth at the helm after the first World Series in Portugal. Despite a win in a tune-up race in San Diego and a couple of solid races during the World Series, Hagara says the team desperately needs more practice together and a stronger development program for the headsails on the AC45.
After all, Hagara says, small outfits such as Team Korea, Aleph and Energy Team are not flush with cash but had strong showings in San Diego because they practiced on 40-foot catamarans in the more competitive but less costly Extreme Sailing Series. Getting paid, Hagara adds, wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. “So far, we’ve been doing this without contracts because we believe in the possibilities.”
Adds skipper Ogletree: “We’ve got a long list of things to work on, but mainly it’s one job: fundraising.”

Clock is ticking faster
During the World Series’ winter hiatus, the Chinese have two races on their hands. One, of course, is the dash for cash. “We have Chinese companies funding us at the moment, but we are still looking for the title sponsor to be better prepared for all the races,” PR manager Noelle Gahan-Smulders says. But time is ticking because the fully funded teams have been working feverishly on design and construction of the bigger, badder, faster and much costlier AC72 catamarans that will be used in the Cup.
In San Diego, Cup insiders talked openly about only three credible challengers in 2013: Artemis, Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa, the Italian syndicate of fashion billionaires Miuccia Prada Bianchi and Patrizio Bertelli that will join the World Series in 2012. China Team’s blog revealed that technical director Yann Dabadie and China Team’s owner reviewed and decided to purchase the $1.2 million shared design package from America’s Cup Race Management that is meant to help fast-track the development and construction of an AC72 cat.
China Team’s second race is to secure a World Series event at home. The team says there is interest from a couple of cities and that it is “working closely with the America’s Cup Event Authority to make this happen.” If it comes to pass, it would bring the Cup to the Chinese (it travels with the World Series) and the Chinese to the Cup. It also would boost China Team to make it China’s team, which would stir interest, attract sponsors and get youngsters to choose sailing over other sports. It’s a win-win because sailing finally would grow again and China eventually could become a legitimate contender for the Auld Mug.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Soundings.