America's Cup win for billionaire Larry Ellison a hollow victory
Billionaire Larry Ellison retains America's Cup but dramatic races on San Francisco Bay failed to draw fans and TV ratings
Karma lay in wait. The big blowhard bully of a billionaire and his crew of international mercenaries were about to be thoroughly embarrassed on their own turf by the upstarts from a tiny country. Sportsmanship over cheating, humility and dedication over garish bravado - karmic retribution.
Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts, an unrepentant and largely unlikeable duo, were about to be visited by the natural laws of causation at the America's Cup on the shores of San Francisco Bay.
Team New Zealand had amassed a seemingly insurmountable lead over Ellison's Oracle Team USA in the competition for the oldest international sporting trophy. Up eight races to one, all they needed was one more victory to bring the Cup and the race back to New Zealand after a 10-year hiatus. Skipper Dean Barker was saying all the right things, but there was little doubt everybody associated with Team New Zealand was envisioning how they would defend it at home in three years. "Whoever defends it needs to find a way to make it more inclusive," said the earnest Barker.
Because the holders of the Cup get to dictate virtually all protocol for the event, including the type of boat used in the race, it was vital to get more teams back in the Challenger Series. In previous events, there had been as many as 13 boats vying to compete against the holders.
But this time around Ellison had come out with a new, expensive, space-age AC72 wing-sail catamaran protocol that reduced the challengers to all but three boats. In 2002, nine boats from seven countries competed in the Challenger Series in New Zealand and completely invigorated and upgraded the area around Auckland harbour. And now a little more than 10 years later it was about to return. A few tweaks here and there, and all would be right again in a country that has more sailors per capita than any other. It was the Kiwi Coutts who brought the Cup down to New Zealand in the first place when he won it in 1995 and successfully defended it on home turf in 2000. And it was Coutts who took it away from New Zealand in 2003 when he was offered a ton of money to skipper the Swiss team Alinghi. He would go on to skipper Ellison's boat and win him the Cup before becoming chief executive of Oracle Racing for this year's event. And now Ellison and Coutts were being roasted on a skewer. Man, this was going to feel good.
But this is the America's Cup and while there is much talk about sportsmanship, sacrifice and pride, it has always been about money. In the end, big money would win again. Team USA have much more of it than New Zealand and made a couple of major adjustments to stage a remarkable comeback and win 9-8. Still when you have two boats and crews who have spent more than US$100 million, karmic retribution does not come in a monetary flourish.
Karma comes in the fact that few cared about Ellison's miraculous comeback. Television ratings in the US were abysmal and despite the daily drama the event failed to permeate American consciousness. Years from now when coaches are looking for inspiration to rally their team from a large deficit, it's doubtful they will say: Remember Oracle Team USA! Not exactly win one for the Gipper.
In New Zealand, it is a national disaster. This is a country with a sailing culture like no other. I was there in 2002 and the enthusiasm was infectious. This will hurt for a long, long time.
None of that matters to Larry though. Almost immediately after crossing the finish line, the boat picked up their boss for a victory lap around the bay. The principals in both crews had been mic'd throughout the event for television and it often sounded like a scrum between the Wallabies and the All Blacks. Team USA had an Australian skipper, Jimmy Spithill, and a grand total of one American among their 11-man crew. Presumably all those American flags being waved were for off-side trimmer Rome Kirby and as Ellison spoke to Spithill an American voice was heard aboard the Team USA boat for the first time in 17 races.
In three years, Ellison may make the stakes so high that there will be no challengers who can afford it. In that case, his team can merely set out to do a victory lap and nothing else. There will no doubt be legions of xenophobic yobs out in full force to wave the Stars and Stripes as they pass by. And nobody will care. That's truly karma.