ABC7 traveled to San Diego to see his big gamble in action. We went to San Diego to see the America's Cup World Series. That's not the same as the America's Cup races that will be held in San Francisco in 2013. This America's Cup World Series is an event created by Ellison to promote sailing as a spectator sport.
The Port of San Diego estimated the weeklong crowd at 80,000, but on the final big weekend the ports preliminary estimate seemed wildly optimistic.
City officials from San Francisco went to San Diego expecting much bigger crowds at the first ever America's Cup World Series to be held in the U.S. Ellison holds the America's Cup and is bringing the World Series exhibition races to San Francisco next August as part of a campaign to raise interest and build a television audience for yacht racing.
"Well it's easy to look at this and think, 'Wow, maybe did over plan?'" said Peter Albert, the SFMTA deputy director of planning.
Albert wanted to be in San Diego to see how San Diego's transportation, parking and traffic control were coping with the crowds. But there wasn't that much to see.
"It's game time. Boats are on the water and we're not seeing the throngs of crowds that we had expected," said San Francisco Deputy Police Chief James Dudley.
Dudley expected to spend the weekend checking out security plans and crowd management strategies, but he went home early.
"I actually planned to come earlier and stay later, but there's really not that much going on...so," said Dudley.
Phil Ginsburg is general manager of San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department.
"I think what you see today is a far cry from the excitement that will be generated on San Francisco's bay," said Ginsburg.
That's a widely held opinion among the San Francisco officials we talked to.
"We expect many more in San Francisco Bay," said Dudley.
"We've marketed the America's Cup so much more vigorously I think in San Francisco than here," said Albert.
But just how many more is anybody's guess. The city is anticipating hundreds of thousands of spectators for the America's Cup races in 2013, but the America's Cup World Series… that is a whole new event.
"When you look out at this, it's fast, it's exciting," said Ginsburg.
Those who came to watch believe it'll draw a big audience.
"There will be large crowds on the waterfront from Crissy Field all the way up to Pier 39 in San Francisco. That'll be the big difference there, correct," said Norbert Bajurin, the Golden Gate Yacht Club Commodore.
Ellison's vision of high speed boats racing close to shore with dozens of cameras catching the action is without a doubt the best shot the sailing has ever had at attracting a television audience.
On the other hand, yacht racing has never been a popular spectator sport in this country and while the organizers are trying to attract a crowd, they're also trying to make the events pay for themselves. So a seat in the bleachers cost $10 during the preliminary races, they doubled the price for the weekend and the bleachers on San Diego's Broadway Pier were a bargain at prices between $10-$20.
Next door at the VIP Club run by a San Rafael sports marketing company, a chair along with food and drink was $195 on Friday and went up from there. Those seats were $275 on Saturday and $425 on Sunday.
Spectators were permitted to stand on the pier free and you could stand in the America's Cup village and watch the big screen T.V. coverage. But if you wanted to sit down in the fenced off area in front of the screen, it was $20 for a glass of champagne and at least $10 for a glass of red or white.
We asked San Francisco's America's Cup project manager Michael Martin if this is what's coming to the San Francisco Bay Area. He said, "Well that's not really what we're planning in San Francisco."
Martin assured us that sitting down to see the race in San Francisco will not come with a price tag.
"We're having these discussions with a lot of the local regulatory agencies that expect that because that's what the water front is for," said Martin.
Martin says San Francisco will not charge like San Diego did. But here's the catch, the World Series organizers are under a lot of pressure to make this event pay for itself and right now the World Series is losing money, a lot of money. That's the subject of our report this coming Tuesday night.