the show must go on, part 2
Before I tell you why I think teams are sailing the LVT despite its lack of value for both teams and sponsors and its ultimately unsustainable nature, let me address those who’ve asked "why the hell did you go to Sardinia if you don’t like IACC boats?"
Last summer at Melges 32 Worlds, I sat around a dinner table for a few enjoyable hours with Vincenzo Onorato and his team. A phenomenal dinner and an even better bottle of wine later, he invited Mer and I to La Maddalena to ‘see one of the most beautiful sailing venues in the world.’ Onorato seemed proud of his little slice of ex-naval base heaven, and we seriously considered it, if for no other reason than because someone we respect thought it important.
As May rolled around, we learned of the iffy internet connection on the island, calculated the costs and travel times, sought a good reason to justify what would essentially be a vacation, and decided that it probably didn’t make sense to go, especially since we knew we weren’t going to enjoy the racing enough to do a good job covering it for SA. We told Onorato’s staff that we couldn’t make it happen given the above, and thought no further of it. Then I wrote a piece called "Same old, same old" on this front page, and a few hours after it went up, we got another invitation from Mascalzone Latino – a more insistent one. I chose to view that e-mail as an opportunity to talk to Onorato as no one has done since Valencia, booked my ticket, and off I went. Little did I know that BMW/Oracle’s choice to blow off their boat repairs would reshape the event completely, and by the time I got to town, Onorato was long gone, having seen not just his team, but all of Italia, knocked out of the event.
With nothing else to do, I mostly just chatted to the racers, and for the most part, they were disappointed. Disappointed in the format. Disappointed in the huge amount of waiting around they’d done in their 3 weeks in town. Disappointed in BMW/Oracle. Disappointed in the media turnout. Disappointed in general. "So why are you here?" I asked. And mostly, they had the same answer. "We have to stay in the game if we are to play the game."
The problem with the game they’re playing is that it only benefits a very small group. Louis Vuitton loves it. They get to fly in their top customers – those who buy 7 figures of LV merchandise a year – and give them some of the most exclusive VIP treatment anywhere at what I heard one LVT staffer describe to a guest as "the Formula One of Sailing" if you can believe that. One marketing exec told me that "the 18th man spot is the most coveted sponsor spot in all of sport," and it makes sense. And for LV and a couple of other sponsors, the exclusive, elite nature of these events matches exactly their image. They don’t need a village for the public like the MedCup, because they don’t need the public, and in fact, it’s likely that the lack of crowds is actually beneficial to the goals of companies like theirs. They don’t need the unwashed masses, they don’t need mainstream media, they really don’t need much, so long as they have some 18th man spots to pimp out, a hospitality boat with foie gras, caviar, and champagne, and some dinner reservations.
But sponsors like LV that focus on such a tiny target for their sponsorship objectives are incredibly rare, and while most sponsors are looking for some schmoozing hospitality opportunities, if they do not get meaningful media value out of their investment, they’re gone. And given the worldwide apathy for the LVT thus far, they won’t ever get that. The public, and the media that shapes much of its opinions, is catching on to the ugly facts about IACC boats; they’re fragile, piggish in the light, they can’t go racing just when the breeze gets interesting, and compared to almost any modern design – especially Alinghi 5 and DoGzilla – watching an AC match race is more like watching humpback whales fornicate than it is like watching sport. There are no women anywhere on the boats, the sailors themselves are mostly terrified of revealing anything interesting about themselves on camera, the coverage is expensive and difficult, and for those that understand the sport, the excitement is often quashed by the fact that the teams are sailing around underpowered (rig tension limits require that), under-aggressive, and with beat-up sails a size too small for the conditions.
And the LVT’s function for ‘keeping the teams sharp’ is questionable. The next Cup boat is a hell of a lot more likely to look and act like a mini-maxi or a multihull than a match racing yacht. The tactics of the 34th Cup will be totally alien to these boats, the crews will be much smaller, and the sooner these guys stop wasting time, money, and sponsor goodwill on dinosaurs, the more ready they’ll be for the next go around.
Finally, the writing is on the wall for the LVT and BMW/Oracle Racing, whose participation lends a major dose of AC credibility to the LVT. I’m not boatbuilder, but 3 different uber-carbonologists and half a dozen top racers told me that Tugboat Turner could have had both BMW boats up and running within the four days they originally estimated, yet Tugboat and his boys left town rather than help make sure that the teams at least got in a good amount of quality racing. "It’s a power play," said one skipper. "BMW are reminding everyone that no matter how shite they do in the event, they hold all the cards."
At the end of the day, two words are responsible for the fact that 100 of these immense match racing boats ever got wet: America’s Cup. And without those words, the boats, the format, and the techniques cannot survive, and they should have died long ago. It doesn’t matter how good the coverage is, it doesn’t matter how glamorous the locale, and the sooner Louis Vuitton and the teams address it, the better. Until then, they’re all just gasping for air.
Epilogue – The Good Stuff
This piece is not meant to attack the guys running the events themselves. They put on a hell of a regatta, from the girls serving drinks to the incomparable Peter Reggio (though it took him three weeks to finally turn a match around in 10 minutes). Troublé is a gracious host and an affable guy, and the fact that he couldn’t care less what we write is somehow endearing. The racers and team staff (all of whom read SA first thing in the morning) that share their thoughts, their food, and their wine with us are gems, even if they choose not to be quoted here – and that time will come. The venue itself is spectacular – La Maddalena is, without reservation, the most beautiful part of the Mediterranean that I’ve seen in 20 years of visiting the big sea. If I were going to host a major upmarket event that didn’t require international media presence, I’d pick it in a heartbeat. And the assembled knowledge and talent on hand is mindblowing – the most I laughed all week was at the hands of Grant Dalton, Joey Allen, and Rod Davis during an impromptu game of sailing trivia aboard the ETNZ coach boat during a long postponement. And Troublé scored a real coup when he got Russian television to carry the finals live – a first for the nation and undoubtedly a positive for the sport’s growth in a new market.
But for me, and for the millions of sporting fans around the world who will never care about the Louis Vuitton Trophy, it just ain’t enough.