The thrilling conclusion to the America's Cup races yesterday were a reminder that despite the cheating, the whining, the naysaying, the often lackluster (or uncontested) races, and the tragic death of a crew member, boat races can be pretty damn thrilling. And while most of the focus is still on celebrating the come-from-way-behind victory of Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA, it's also a chance to take stock of the future of what had been billed as either a water-borne NASCAR or an event to rival the Olympics. Here are the key questions, both big and small:
Will the race return to San Francisco? That depends on how Larry Ellison feels. Remember, the way that America's Cup works is as if when the Giants won the World Series, Bill Neukom got to decide what kind of bats and balls to use next year. (Technically, it's up to the Golden Gate Yacht Club, but Ellison is the prime mover there.) So it all depends on whether SF politicians and Ellison are willing to negotiate after the back-and-forth controversy that marked this year's races. (After all, Ellison could always move the competition to his private Hawaiian island.) As the Chron reported, much of the political infighting surrounding the race is still present.
When is the next Cup? It's should be three years from now, though there's always the possibility that lawsuits could delay it. And with the America's Cup, there are always lawsuits. An announcement is expected soon.
Will the next race use the expensive and dangerous AC72 models? The new models, two-hulled catamarans, drew concerns over the prohibitive cost, which led to far fewer teams participating than expected. After the death of Artemis crew member Andrew "Bart" Simpson during training in May, cost concerns were joined by worries about safety. But it's not clear that the next races will revert to the slower AC45 models. Yesterday Ellison said, ""It's no secret that these boats are expensive and we'd like to have more countries competing next time. So we are going to have to figure out how we'll accomplish both—get more countries competing at the same time but keep it as spectacular as it was in this last regatta." Reading between the lines, it seems like a strong bet that we will not see the 72s again.
Has yacht racing finally hit the big time? Elllison did say yesterday that, "More people watched the first race of this America’s Cup than all of the America’s Cups in history, so I think it’s a success.” True? Well, the first races of the finale drew one million live viewers, falling to between 110,000 to 25,000 for the middle races. Ratings data for yesterday's race hasn't come in yet, but it's likely it'll break the first day's record. But even a record number of viewers is still microscopically small potatoes: consider, Monday Night Football drew 13 million viewers this week and even WWE pro wrestling had over 3 million viewers. (Something called Lizard Lick Towing picked up more than a million people.)
Do the sailors stay with the teams? Though there's no reserve clause in sailing, many of the crew members tend to stick with the same teams competition after competition. Oracle skipper James Spithill has been with the team for two consecutive races and Dean Barker, the skipper of New Zealand, has been with the team since 1995. However, it's likely that after the loss, the New Zealand government will pull funding for the team, leading to its break up.
What happens to the San Francisco waterfront? Early plans for long-lasting structures along the waterfront were scaled back, meaning that much of the bleachers along the piers will be gone. There's a small chance that the music venue could remain, but it's doubtful at best. The good news is that Ellison steered a large amount of money into refurbishing the San Francisco Yacht Club, which isn't going anywere.
Has the redemptive thrill of public victory finally filled the Rosebud shaped void in the soul of Larry Ellison? Just look at that picture of him up there.