San Diego America's Cup event falls short

December 6, 2011 8:53:56 PM PST
Tens of millions of dollars are being spent in a huge gamble to raise interest in the America's Cup. But so far, that gamble has not paid off. ABC7 went to San Diego for the America's Cup World Series-- an event San Francisco will host next year.

Just to clarify, the America's Cup World Series is not the America's Cup. It's an exhibition race or series of races featuring the America's Cup teams, but in smaller boats and it is intended to build an audience for high speed yacht racing, which is something that's never happened before in the U.S.

The World Series races in San Diego, we're definitely high energy. But how was the economic impact?

A general manager of a bay side restaurant we spoke to couldn't be happier. He said the event brought him a ton of business for them. The desk manager of the Westin San Diego says it brought in $250,000 for them. But other bay side business saw no benefit.

In San Diego's Gaslamp restaurant district we checked in with about six different places, but they said they didn't see an economic boost. And at least one of the vendors inside the event itself told ABC7 she was actually losing money.

The big crowds that some expected in San Diego, did not materialize. The port district put the preliminary count at 80,000 over nine days, but over the final three days, we didn't see any like those numbers.

"America doesn't respond to sailing like Europe does and like a lot of the rest of the world, Australia, New Zealand," said John Arndt, an associate publisher of a West Coast sailing magazine called Latitude 38.

Arndt admits it's a challenge to build an audience for sailing in the U.S. However, the current holder of the America's Cup is spending a lot of money to make that happen.

"It's a very significant investment," said Craig Thompson.

Thompson is running the America's Cup Event Authority for Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. Thompson doesn't disclose how much is being invested, but said it was at least in the tens of millions.

Ellison himself has refuted reports that he's committed $300 million of his own to make sailing a T.V. sport in the U.S., but his television production is certainly high dollar. One television executive producer said he has set up 45 cameras and 200 audio sources. Every crew member on every boat has a microphone. There are three helicopters shooting every race. The graphics were put together by the same guys that do the NFL and Major League Baseball.

When asked how the America's Cup would compare to a Monday Night Football broadcast, executive producer Denis Harvey said, "I would think it's probably larger...and in degree of technical difficulty, far, far more, definitely way more difficult."

He also said the cost of that kind of broadcast is quite a lot. Paying for it has become a problem. Sponsorships are coming up short.

"It's difficult for companies right now to justify new things. We're a new thing," said Thompson.

The Port of San Diego put in $316,000 to help fund the event. Host city organizers could not tell me how much they had been able to raise privately, just that it should have been better.

"Well, certainly we looked toward getting local sponsors if we could be we had a relatively short time here,"

The sponsors that did pony up got treated royally. The VIP lounge was right above the race course on the deck of the Midway Aircraft Carrier, which is now a Navy aviation museum. But in terms of building a TV audience, it didn't happen at The Waterfront bar ? some didn't even know it was going on. At the San Diego Yacht Club, they had four screens going in the bar and three of them tuned to the Charger game.

"Sailing is not the sport that your average guy tunes in to watch on Sunday afternoon," said Thompson.

Thompson knows the challenge. New host cities aren't signing up for the America's Cup World Series races. There are no races scheduled until next April.

As for fundraising for a yacht race, run by one of the richest men in the world, Thompson said, "Well, you know, on the surface of it people raise an eyebrow."

But what Ellison is trying to do is have a huge upside for the Bay Area. Boosters will tell you $1.4 billion worth. The question is how long will Ellison be willing to pick up the tab to try to make it happen.

"This is a small sport, OK and small sports don't get this opportunity very often, OK? We better capitalize on it, we better make it happen," said Thompson.

The final two days of the America's Cup World Series races in San Diego were carried on the Bay Area cable channel Comcast sports Net. Here are the ratings: on average 3,500 people watched on Saturday; fewer than 3,000 on Sunday. By comparison, 100,000 people watch ABC7 News at 6 p.m.


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