America’s Cup Back in American Hands, No One Cares

BMW Oracle owner Larry Ellison lifts up the trophy after winning the 33rd America's Cup in Valencia, Sunday.  Heino Kalis / Reuters

BMW Oracle owner Larry Ellison lifts up the trophy after winning the 33rd America's Cup in Valencia, Sunday. Heino Kalis / Reuters

Oracle’s Larry Ellison won the America’s Cup yacht race Sunday, becoming the first American winner in fifteen years.

American software tycoon Larry Ellison won the America’s Cup yacht race in the Mediterranean Sunday, defeating the defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland.

It’s the first time a US team has taken home the cup since Dennis Conner lost it in 1995 to Team New Zealand.

Victory, as it often does in this race, went to the team with the technological edge.

Mr. Ellison’s tri-hulled behemoth vanquished bio-tech billionaire Ernesto Bertarell’s catamaran two days in a row, in the best of three races.

This is a rich man’s event, with this year witnessing the most expensive entries in the contest’s 159-year history. Each team spent more than 100 million ($138 million) in pursuit of the most advanced, state-of-the-art sailing technology.

Oracle’s captain, for example, wore dark glasses hooked to a computer that projected on the lenses information about the wind speed, direction, and sail loads.

Both boats tapped aeronautical and material science engineers to create carbon-fiber aquatic missiles able skim the surface of the ocean at three times the speed of the wind.

What’s interesting to me about this story isn’t the return of the Cup to the USA or even that Ellison won it.  Rather, it’s that I was completely oblivious to the fact that the race was even underway until I saw it in my feed reader yesterday morning.  (The baby’s waking postponed my blogging on it until I happened to see the open tab again this morning.)

It wasn’t always the case.  Despite being “a rich man’s sport,” the quadrennial  America’s Cup competition somehow riveted American news coverage.  This, despite the New York Yacht Club winning it umpteen straight times.    It really got interesting in 1983, when a foreign challenger (Australia’s Alan Bond) won the race for the first time, ever.  But, while that temporarily made the next couple of races more interesting — we Americans wanted the Cup back! — the race also marked the beginning of the end.

While technology was always a key factor, as it is in any sort of mechanical racing competition, the races were theretofore among quite similar yachts, at least giving the illusion that superior seamanship and tenacity were the keys to winning.  But Bond won with a winged keel.   The 1987 race featured a novel fiberglass hull design.  Subsequent races then became about crafting boats that were technically permitted under the rules but totally dissimilar to the ones against which they were racing.   Viewers quickly lost interest.   (It probably didn’t help that American teams were shut out of the finals for the 2000, 2003, and 2007 matches.)

There’s a lot of competition for the sports viewer’s attention.  Quite a few sports that were truly big a quarter century ago have been relegated to niche status.  Yacht racing, horse racing and boxing all come to mind.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    The problem is that multi-hulls just aren’t as beautiful. Once the New Zealanders broke the Rule, it was downhill.

  2. Mr. Prosser says:

    Frankly, I didn’t think anyone here would notice the race. The Cup has become rocket science on water and that’s fascinating to me. I don’t care who wins so much as what the hull designs were and what materials were used. I want a pair of those glasses and a bike made from that carbon fiber!

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    Maybe the problem is that it’s a sport dominated entirely by rich douche bags.

  4. tom p says:

    I have to say I lost interest with all the legal wrangling (lawsuits, counterlawsuits)over the rules. It was like the Colts suing the Saints before the Superbowl because it was being held in the south and the Saints would therfor have more of a “hometown advantage”, and the Saints suing the Colts because they had a better offensive line and that gave them an unfair advantage…

    So the AC had a judge deciding how the rules would be interpreted.

  5. Grewgills says:

    Maybe the problem is that it’s a sport dominated entirely by rich douche bags.

    As opposed to what other sport?

  6. Brian Knapp says:

    As opposed to what other sport?

    Hahaha! True. But I think that Michael’s response is in terms of competitive accessibility. That is, if someone wants to play football, baseball, basketball, soccer, or even golf, the barrier to playing is minimal in terms of dollars spent. Yachting…not so much. I know car racing would seem the same, but everyone owns a car and has to brave it on the highways at some time.

  7. 11B40 says:


    I got to see the last race the Americans won back in 1983, off Newport, Rhode Island. If I recall correctly, they went up 3-1 in the then seven-race series, but then lost the next three races and the Cup. I was fortunate enough to be on board the US Coast Guard’s training ship “Eagle”, a three-masted, square-rigged sailing ship for the race, but, between a seasick sweetheart and and my enthrallment with the moored vessel, I only saw a couple of bits of the actual racing. It’s not really a viewer-friendly type of event.

  8. John Burgess says:

    I caught a remark on an ESPN news program several weeks before the races stating that they were upcoming. No date was given. I never came across an update. If it received TV coverage while in progress, I’m damned if I know where.

    There are still a couple of J-boats hanging around Newport Harbor, if you like the classics. Unfortunately, they cost about $5K/day (insurance, salaries, maintenance) to maintain, according to one owner. That kind of money will indeed limit entry.

    Trying to break land speed records isn’t for the poor, nor is airplane racing. Since only ‘rich douche bags’ partake, I guess we should all just forget about those things. If they don’t matter to you, then they should matter enough to get your panties into a knot.

    I’m still trying to figure out how ‘Rhythmic Dancing’ became an Olympic sport…

  9. sam says:

    Thomas Lipton (Lipton Tea) tried and failed five times to win the Cup. He was renowned for his sense of fair play and graciousness in losing. After his fifth try, he announced that that would be his last. I read somewhere that a campaign was launched to have American schoolchildren send in a dime and that the resulting amount would be sent to Lipton as a tribute from the schoolchildren to his sportsmanship. IIRC, he was so moved by the gift, that he had the dimes melted down and fashioned into a replica of the America’s Cup.

  10. Richard Gardner says:

    I used to follow the Cup closely and too was in Newport RI for the summer of 1983 during the last American defense. I watched the final live on TV (mostly helicopter coverage). What a month-long party! It really was a Newport event with the traditions of the New York Yacht Club. Afterward I’m not sure what it became.

    I was aware it was happening, but I didn’t follow it. I wonder if the next challenge will be near San Francisco, or return to Newport. Being back in the USA there may be more coverage next time.

  11. floyd says:

    “”Maybe the problem is that it’s a sport dominated entirely by rich douche bags.””

    You mean like, Pro-baseball, Pro-football,& NASCAR?