It looks a lot like the hugely successful challenger-selection series that was an integral part of every America's Cup from 1983 to 2007. Same sailors, same boats, same main sponsor.
But the Louis Vuitton Trophy, the new racing circuit behind yesterday's announcement that Dubai International Marine Club would play host to one of its 14-day regattas, in November, is in many ways very different. It had to be. Launching an America's Cup challenge with even the remotest hope of being competitive has become hugely expensive. While none of the teams has ever stated exactly what it cost them, some estimates have been made by those who would have good reason to know: Grant Dalton, the chief executive of Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), has said that BMW Oracle's 2007 challenge in Valencia must have cost about US$200 million (Dh734m).
It is widely believed that Emirates Airline's sponsorship of Mr Dalton's team is worth some $35m and that is in addition to the money from a syndicate of about 30 very wealthy private backers and numerous smaller commercial sponsors. All of which, observers believe, could add up to an operating budget of $150m. But it was not the money that prompted Louis Vuitton to disassociate itself from the America's Cup, in 2007. It was the court battles that have scuppered the event since Alinghi won in Valencia in 2007.
It is hard to imagine how depressing it was for the would-be challengers and sailors to have no realistic possibility of competing at that elite level for the foreseeable future. Enter a handful of passionate individuals, notably Mr Dalton and Bruno Troublé, and the seed of a new racing circuit was planted, with the staging of the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series in Auckland last February. Planned as a one-time event, it brought together 10 teams of would-have-been America's Cup challengers for a match-racing series, sailed in America's Cup-class boats loaned by ETNZ.
At the time, Mr Troublé said that it was "our duty to bring a bit of life into things and enable the teams to sail again". It was also hoped that the event would encourage the sponsors to stay with the sport. Mr Troublé's role, in fact, has been much more than his current description as a "spokesman" for the new racing circuit would suggest: as the skipper of a series of French challengers for the America's Cup in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was the catalyst for Louis Vuitton's involvement, persuading the then-president of the luxury goods company to sponsor a more structured challenger-selection series, named the Louis Vuitton Cup.
Mr Troublé has continued to be a catalyst. The success of the Auckland event has led to the Louis Vuitton Trophy series, which is organised in conjunction with the World Sailing Team Association (WSTA), an organisation of America's Cup-level teams that was formed last year. The first regatta of the new series was held in Nice, France, last November. The Louis Vuitton Trophy will comprise just four events per competition year, to be held in locations around the world.
Upcoming regattas will be held in Auckland in March; La Maddalena, Italy, in July; Dubai in November; and Hong Kong in February 2011. The intent, says Christine Belanger, corporate-events director at Louis Vuitton, is to maintain a level of exclusivity. Being chosen to host an event does not necessarily mean being a permanent host; it is a right that must, in effect, be re-earned. With millions of dollars of potential business activity at stake, it is a coveted opportunity for host cities. The organisers estimated that the Pacific Series regatta injected $12m into the Auckland economy.
Paul Cayard, the chairman of WSTA, said limiting the number of regattas also protected the teams' and sailors' interests by taking into account the existing calendar of other events, notably RC44, which will be held in Dubai again in March, and the Mediterranean-based TP52 series. While Yves Carcelle, the chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton, insisted the new series was "not intended to compete with or replace" the America's Cup, the new circuit enjoys a similar level of prestige, partly as a result of the French company's name having been so closely linked to sailing's oldest trophy and partly because of the level of competition it involves.
America's Cup sailing is the pinnacle of yachting. Mr Dalton said the "professionalisation" of the sport in the past 25 years has greatly raised the game. "It's similar to rugby," he said. "Once racing yachtsmen could earn their living from the sport, they could dedicate themselves fully to it. "As a result, they are much more skilled than ever before, and much more focused and competitive." One important way in which the organisers of the new series keep expenses manageable is by using the fleet of yachts that competed in the America's Cup until 2007. That way, expenses are largely limited to hiring crews and moving them around the world.
For spectators, sponsors, host cities and, above all, the competitors, the series can only be good news. As Dean Barker, the ETNZ skipper said when he was in Dubai for the RC44 regatta in November: "Our primary goal is to win the next America's Cup. At least, the next we can be involved in. While it's tangled in legal battles it's hard to know what the future holds. But in the interim everything we do is about keeping the team fresh and at the top of its game."
In hosting the Louis Vuitton Trophy races in November, Dubai International Marine Club and Emirates Airline are enabling Barker and his peers to do just that. firstname.lastname@example.org