Sports Outside the Beltway

Larry Ellison Wins America’s Cup

BMW Oracle owner Larry Ellison lifts up the trophy after winning the 33rd America's Cup in Valencia, Sunday.  Heino Kalis / Reuters

BMW Oracle owner Larry Ellison lifts up the trophy after winning the 33rd America's Cup in Valencia, Sunday. Heino Kalis / Reuters

Oracle’s Larry Ellison won the America’s Cup yacht race Sunday, becoming the first American winner in fifteen years.

American software tycoon Larry Ellison won the America’s Cup yacht race in the Mediterranean Sunday, defeating the defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland.

It’s the first time a US team has taken home the cup since Dennis Conner lost it in 1995 to Team New Zealand.

Victory, as it often does in this race, went to the team with the technological edge.

Mr. Ellison’s tri-hulled behemoth vanquished bio-tech billionaire Ernesto Bertarell’s catamaran two days in a row, in the best of three races.

This is a rich man’s event, with this year witnessing the most expensive entries in the contest’s 159-year history. Each team spent more than 100 million ($138 million) in pursuit of the most advanced, state-of-the-art sailing technology.

Oracle’s captain, for example, wore dark glasses hooked to a computer that projected on the lenses information about the wind speed, direction, and sail loads.

Both boats tapped aeronautical and material science engineers to create carbon-fiber aquatic missiles able skim the surface of the ocean at three times the speed of the wind.

What’s interesting to me about this story isn’t the return of the Cup to the USA or even that Ellison won it. Rather, it’s that I was completely oblivious to the fact that the race was even underway until I saw it in my feed reader yesterday morning. (The baby’s waking postponed my blogging on it until I happened to see the open tab again this morning.)

It wasn’t always the case. Despite being “a rich man’s sport,” the quadrennial America’s Cup competition somehow riveted American news coverage. This, despite the New York Yacht Club winning it umpteen straight times. It really got interesting in 1983, when a foreign challenger (Australia’s Alan Bond) won the race for the first time, ever. But, while that temporarily made the next couple of races more interesting — we Americans wanted the Cup back! — the race also marked the beginning of the end.

While technology was always a key factor, as it is in any sort of mechanical racing competition, the races were theretofore among quite similar yachts, at least giving the illusion that superior seamanship and tenacity were the keys to winning. But Bond won with a winged keel. The 1987 race featured a novel fiberglass hull design. Subsequent races then became about crafting boats that were technically permitted under the rules but totally dissimilar to the ones against which they were racing. Viewers quickly lost interest. (It probably didn’t help that American teams were shut out of the finals for the 2000, 2003, and 2007 matches.)

There’s a lot of competition for the sports viewer’s attention. Quite a few sports that were truly big a quarter century ago have been relegated to niche status. Yacht racing, horse racing and boxing all come to mind.

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