America’s Cup organiser sets his sights on a moving target

Restructuring the commercial side of the venerable competition is vital for the future.

Sir Russell Coutts, the chief executive of the America’s Cup Event Authority, has set the ball rolling for the organisation’s revamp by initiating structural changes. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

For Sir Russell Coutts, the chief executive of the America's Cup Event Authority (ACEA), restructuring the commercial side of the venerable competition is crucial.
However, given the unique way the ACEA operates, nothing is set in stone. The organisation is formed at the behest of the cup holder after each final. It is, in effect, a start-up formed whenever a new team wins.
"Yes. If a new team wins they take over responsibilities for the next event, including organising broadcast agreements in the various locations, finding event partners and venue agreements in those locations," says Sir Russell.
That has led to problems in the past. "Typically, you end up with a bit of a hiatus while that new entity gets organised," he says.
But the ACEA's revamp is well under way. Five of the six teams have already agreed a set of commercial building blocks that will underpin the event.
"If you look at it candidly, if all six teams were in agreement about what the future's going to look like – one of them is going to win – and if you agree on the fundamentals, which five of the six teams have, then you can really start to make plans for the future and you don't have that vacuum at the end of it," says Sir Russell.
"The fundamentals are things such as the type of boat you would race next time, and commercial rights, some of those are exclusive and protected and some of them are shared across the partners in various categories. Those foundation blocks can all be agreed and five of the six teams are now working together and there is consensus on all of the main issues."
Last year the teams and the ACEA decided smaller boats would be used this time round, coming down to 45ft from the previous 62ft, in a bid to make racing more affordable.
The change could cut costs by 50 per cent, Franck Cammas, the skipper of Team France, said last year. "With the smaller boat we can imagine that a budget between €15 million (Dh59.8m) to €20m would be enough to win the America's Cup," he said.
But what if the sixth team, as yet unnamed, decides not to sign up? "If they don't you still have the agreements in place for the other five if one of those wins, so it's still a lot better than what it was, but of course there would be some compromises," says Sir Russell. "But with the five already you will have major broadcast agreements ready to go and you may even have major sponsorships ready to go."
Agreements are mainly negotiated by the ACEA but some were formed in partnership with some of the teams and venues, he says.
"The UK team, for example, they run their own event [the World Series in Portsmouth], they control many of the rights around that event, which of course helps to support the team. They are the dominant media rights holder in their territory, as are the Swedish team in their territory.
"So those rights are being a lot more shared than they were in the past and, to be frank, they have to be. You can't have a situation where one team's very profitable but all the others are making a loss because then they are not sustainable, you wouldn't have a competition.
"We're working very hard at the moment to find that right balance – there's a fair bit of discussion and, its fair to say, dispute over what the right answer will be."
Another ambition for Sir Russel is making the yachts' crew members global sports superstars.
So he will have been cheered by the impromptu dancing the winning crew of Oman's America's Cup World Series event engaged in last weekend. The high-spirited spectacle was captured by scores of onlookers with their smartphones and promptly dispatched around the world via social media.
"I'd love it to be like Formula 1, where drivers are known to millions," says Sir Russell.
"It would be great to have people say, 'look, there's Ben Ainslie,' or 'hey, there's Glen Ashby,'" says Sir Russell.
The fact that most people would not recognise either Ainslie, the Land Rover Bar team skipper, or Ashby, who leads Emirates Team New Zealand, is an indication of the limited audience America's Cup racing has outside the sailing fraternity.
That it was the UK's Olympian gold medallist Ainslie who led the off-the-cuff routine alongside a traditional Omani dance troupe following his team's victory at the weekend will go some way in helping to achieve Sir Russell's dream.
It also vindicates his assessment that digitalising coverage of the competition is a crucial next step in opening up the 165-year-old competition to a wider following.
"We want to really push the digital aspect," he says.
Despite the challenges, Sir Russell believes the competition is already benefiting from the revamp. "I have never seen it anywhere near as advanced as what it is today," he says.
"The America's Cup has never been in better shape, in terms of all of the teams realising that we had to get away from the old days when there was conflict all the time."
Follow The National's Business section on Twitter