Kings and Commoners: The Great Diversity of the America's Cup - Pacific Standard

Kings and Commoners: The Great Diversity of the America's Cup

A look back at the influential history of one of the sporting world's most elite events, which has also managed to attract attention from the masses.
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(PHOTO: PAUL TODD/OUTSIDEIMAGES.COM)

(PHOTO: PAUL TODD/OUTSIDEIMAGES.COM)

Since King Charles II personally imported the Dutch word yacht into English in the 1600s, yachting has defined elitism. The America’s Cup, the longest active international trophy event in sport, has, from its 1851 start, drawn monarchs and moguls. Yet the Cup has also—and also from the start—drawn the masses. The mixed-up, high-tech, crowd-pleasing, media-maneuvering confusion of the America’s Cup:

• San Francisco is expecting some two million visitors over the 55 or so race days this summer. An estimated $22.5 million in public money is being used to spruce up the waterfront.

During the 1899 races, The New York Times reported on the "large and demonstrative crowds" spilling around its offices awaiting bulletins of race progress.

• Boats now use pioneering composite materials—including materials laced with electronic sensors and low-drag microstructures that mimic the ridges on the skin of fast-moving sharks. And hemp ropes gave way to performance-enhancing materials like Kevlar and liquid-crystal polyester.

• Those new yachts have mutated into winged catamarans that go faster but capsize easier, and break apart dramatically—as we saw in the May accident that killed British sailor Andrew "Bart" Simpson.

• This year's Larry Ellison-approved models run about $8 million each; but to mount an America's Cup challenge, figure on at least $100 million for multiple boats, personnel, travel, and the like.

• Yachting has been called the greatest spectator sport of the 19th century. During the 1899 races, The New York Times reported on the "large and demonstrative crowds" spilling around its offices awaiting bulletins of race progress.

• Radio had gone nowhere in the 20 years since its creation, until inventor Guglielmo Marconi agreed to transmit a play-by-play of the 1899 races to Times competitor the New York Herald. The Herald trumpeted two winners: the sailboat Columbia and "reported by wireless."

• In 1899 and 1901, Thomas Edison made highlight reels to show how newfangled motion pictures could let the public see the Cup.

• In 1983, viewer demand forced ESPN—which had spurned exclusive rights to cover the Cup—to interrupt programming to show coverage of the final race—garnering record ratings for the four-year-old network.

• TV honchos and chambers of commerce are pushing races closer to shore, where the action is more viewable, and winds are trickier. This summer, the computer-generated course can be changed during the race to establish better TV angles, and to better fit TV time.

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