Yachting: Coutts could walk from Cup

Russell Coutts
Russell Coutts
Mark down August 8 in the diary. It's when the future of the 35th America's Cup and that of its principal architect, Sir Russell Coutts, could be altered.

August 8 is when the first of the US$2 million ($NZ2.34m) entry fees are due. But with the Cup currently in limbo -- with no venue and the Challenger of Record, Australia's Hamilton Island Yacht Club, withdrawing -- there's a chance August 8 will come and go with few clinking noises in Oracle Team USA's money jar.

So far, they have just two challengers -- Italy's Luna Rossa and Sweden's Artemis. Under Cup rules, Oracle cannot accept these until there is at least a third.

Yachting circles in New Zealand and abroad are awash with gossip other potential challengers could be about to turn the screw on Coutts by withholding entries until changes are made to the unpopular protocol Oracle released earlier this year and, more particularly, until a more favourable venue is chosen.

San Francisco, everyone's choice for the next regatta, is off the table and Bermuda now seems favourite as Coutts seeks a venue that will give him a significant amount of money, some say as much as US$30m ($35m), for the right to stage the event.

San Diego is thought to be a non-starter and challengers are desperate for a venue to be chosen as it's difficult to persuade sponsors to part with large amounts when they don't know where it will be and can't assess commercial returns.

But no one wants Bermuda. To those who need sponsors to compete (British challenger Ben Ainslie Racing need about $150m), Bermuda is a commercial wasteland compared to San Francisco.

Herald on Sunday inquiries have shown that:

- Emirates Team New Zealand are highly likely to put up their entry fee on August 8.

- They would be the third challenger. Cup rules state the first entrant will then become Challenger of Record.

- If they accept, that would be Luna Rossa -- no headache relief there for Coutts.

- Ben Ainslie's team want to enter but are also affected by the lack of venue, disturbing potential sponsors keen on San Francisco.

- Worse, there is talk JP Morgan, one of Ainslie's big sponsors, will not fund an America's Cup campaign.

- There has been talk of challenges from the likes of France and China but nothing concrete.

When the dust settles on August 8, the only challengers for the 35th America's Cup could be Luna Rossa, Team New Zealand and Artemis. That doesn't prevent others from joining later but might affect a potential venue who -- seeing only three challengers -- may play hardball with Coutts.

Another issue for Coutts is television.

The aim is to commercialise the sport and get it covered more on TV, bringing in new fans (and sponsors). Last time, they had to pay to get NBC to cover it. This time might be the same but NBC are said to be unhappy with the prospect of Bermuda.

It's little wonder some doom merchants have speculated the Cup may not be held this time round. There's a long way to go before that happens and more likely is one of two options -- Coutts will relent and change the rules in the protocol earlier this year, bringing in more challengers.

Or he will walk away.

Talk in yachting circles suggests Coutts has a "Bertarelli clause" in his contract with Oracle boss Larry Ellison.

Coutts, after being ditched by Alinghi team owner Ernesto Bertarelli, is said to have kept a clause in his contract which gave him control of Oracle's Cup campaigns, or he could pick up his outstanding salary and bonus and leave.

He intimated last year the 34th Cup could be his last, win or lose, and he has certainly achieved all that can be in this event.

That could be one reason why Ellison has played no part in Cup matters so far. But, if he gets involved on August 8, when his vision has realised only three challengers (again), he may intervene and the Bertarelli clause could be actioned.

- by Paul Lewis

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