America's Cup 2013: Oracle Team USA's Comeback Won't Give Sport a Major Boost

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Oracle Team USA skipper James Spithill (C) kisses the America's Cup trophy as he celebrates onstage after they beat Emirates Team New Zealand to defend the America's Cup during the final race on September 25, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Yachting, and more specifically the America's Cup, has a rich history dating back more than a century. Yet while the sport attracts a niche fanbase, it lacks mainstream attention, and that isn't going to change despite this year's thrilling finish.

A week ago, Oracle Team USA trailed Team New Zealand by an 8-1 score. It looked like the Cup was all but lost for the Americans. The major deficit came after the American team was docked two points due to penalties handed down before competition began.

Yet the suddenly major underdogs fought all the way back to get in contention before eventually tying the score at eight. The remarkable comeback forced a deciding 19th race with the New Zealanders trying to avoid a monumental collapse.

Oracle Team USA won the finale, completing the long journey back from the brink of being blown out to champions of the sport's marquee event. It was an amazing effort by a team that had to overcome a lot of adversity to win the cup.

Just as interesting was the increased amount of attention the event received as they made that quest. If Team New Zealand would have finished the job in quick fashion, the America's Cup would have struggled to make it onto the American sports radar.

Then, as Oracle Team USA began to turn the tide, that began to change. The event quickly starting receiving more attention. The fact an American team was making a charge obviously helped, but it was still a much-needed stint in the spotlight.

Mark McClusky of Wired pointed out the interest stretched to races themselves along with the outside coverage:

By the time the actual America’s Cup racing began, and New Zealand had surged to a seemingly insurmountable lead, it seemed the event would go down as a flop. But over the course of the USA’s comeback, interest built. By the time of the final race today, the spectator areas were packed, with one onlooker turning to another to ask, "Who knew so many people cared about sailing?"

Of course, it still wasn't anywhere the near level of an NFL Sunday or attracting almost one in four viewers, as was the case in New Zealand, according to NBC Bay Area:

Millions of people in New Zealand are waking up early to watch the races. Television ratings show at least one in four in the country is watching it on TV and have been crushed by the recent losses.

That said, the America's Cup went from a total dud to an intriguing event in the span of a week, and people started to notice.

Building off that brief stretch of success will prove extremely difficult, however.

The biggest problem is a two-fold issue with cost. Both the cost of keeping sponsors and the host city happy and getting people more interested in the sport as a whole. Ronnie Cohen of Reuters dove into the issue with Scott MacLeod, an agent who works with the teams.

The money problem has plagued the event, the brainchild of Oracle co-founder Ellison, since its inception. Building, maintaining and manning the technologically advanced yachts costs between $100 million and $200 million - far more than the net gain from the Cup's peak audience of one million.

"At the current ratings, you can't sell enough sponsorship to offset that cost," MacLeod said.

Beyond that, it's hard to keep people interested in a sport they can't participate in on their own. Anybody can play pickup basketball or throw a football around in the backyard. Not many have $100 million to build a high-speed yacht.

Add in the fact the sport doesn't have many major events outside of America's Cup, and the recipe for its popularity to grow on a wide-scale basis just isn't there.

So even though the America's Cup—and the amazing comeback it featured—brought the sport to the attention of sports fans for a while, it's unlikely that this is the start of a yachting popularity boom.


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