Page last updated at 22:56 GMT, Tuesday, 22 September 2009 23:56 UK

Mills floats America's Cup challenge

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

Sailing may not be on everyone's sporting horizon just now, but the man who brought the 2012 Olympics to London believes one international maritime contest provides a "historic" opportunity for the UK.

Sir Keith Mills in front of a photo of his personal boat
Sir Keith Mills has been interested in sailing since the age of 10

Sir Keith Mills, who made his fortune creating the Air Miles loyalty programme, has pumped more than £6m of his own money into the UK's would-be challenger for the America's Cup: Team Origin.

The America's Cup is one of the world's oldest sporting contests, with the sailing race first being held around the Isle of Wight in 1851.

The next contest will be between the holders, Switzerland's Alinghi, and the Oracle team from the US.

Cup dream

Team Origin is looking ahead to 2011 for a potential challenge, as it prepares for the qualifying round of races that will ultimately produce a Cup contestant.

First race in 1851 at Isle of Wight
Only four nations have ever won: USA, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland
Current America's Cup holders: Swiss team Alinghi
If more than one challenger comes forward a contest is held to find the official Cup challenger
Contest to find the challenger is the Louis Vuitton World Series
Last British team to take part in the Americas Cup as the official challenger was the Royal Thames Yacht Club in 1964

"We are relaunching, and the dream is to win the America's Cup for Britain for the first time," he says, sitting in his plush Pall Mall offices, surrounded by his sports and business awards and mementos.

"Winning the Cup would be up there historically with anything that Britain has ever done in sport."

The former chief executive of the London 2012 Olympic bid team points out that when Australia won the Cup for the first time in 1983, "they declared a public holiday".

'Unique relationship'

Sir Keith now needs to get four big-name sponsors on board who are willing to splash out between £3m and £4m a year in sponsorship money for five years.

The Team Origin principal says that the £15m to £20m total for each firm "compares favourably with sponsorship deals in the Premier League".

Team Origin boat with Race For Change branding
Sail for sale: Sponsors will have their brands on the Team Origin boat

These top-level partners will have to meet strict environmental criteria, designed by the UK government-backed Carbon Trust, a body that aims to help businesses reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide.

Under the banner Race for Change, Team Origin has joined forces with the Carbon Trust as its environmental partner.

"We have a unique relationship with the Carbon Trust - what we think is a first in sport with regards to promoting carbon reduction," he says.

"The business partners that we sign up will have to meet the Carbon Trust's standards, and show that they have a programme in place towards reducing their carbon emissions.

"We are using the team and the sport to demonstrate how a company's reduction in carbon emissions is good business," he says.

"Sailing provides an intrinsic fit with the growing environmental consciousness of today - we want this to be more than just a sports team."

Firms approached

Backers will have their brand prominently features on the Team Origin boat's sail, and other promotional and crew material.

Born in 1950 in Brentwood, Essex
Founder of Air Miles scheme in 1988
Founder of Nectar scheme in 2002
Was chief executive of London 2012 Olympic bid campaign
Now deputy chairman of 2012 organising committee Locog
Knighted in 2006 for services to sport
Non-executive director of Tottenham Hotspur FC
Non-executive director of England's 2018 World Cup bid

Sir Keith will now approach about half of the listed FTSE 100 companies before the end of the year to seek a quartet of major partners willing to help pay for the cost of competing in the "Formula 1 of sailing".

There will be categories drawn up for each of the four sponsor slots, which could, for example, include an official energy partner or official media partner.

Having put together the London 2012 bid's commercial programme ("we are nearly there on that"), he is confident of securing America's Cup backers.

One backer already on board is Carphone Warehouse boss Charles Dunstone, an investor shareholder in the team since its birth two years ago.

'Next generation'

Team Origin now has a racing programme of nearly 200 days on the water in 2010, which includes taking part in the Louis Vuitton series to find an America's Cup challenger.

The team is skippered and helmed by triple-Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie and will start competing with other potential America's Cup challengers in Nice this November.

Ben Ainslie on a Team Origin boat
Golden boy: Ben Ainslie is the Team Origin skipper

"Ben is the sort of person who can bring sailing into the media and inspire the next generation of sailors to take up the sport," Sir Keith says enthusiastically.

Should Ainslie and team eventually win the America's Cup, there will be real economic benefits for the UK, as well as the kudos of being the holder.

The winner of the America's Cup earns the right to decide where and when it will defend its title, which is one of the unique aspects of the event.

Spanish city Valenica calculates that hosting the America's Cup in 2007 brought benefits of 2bn euros ($3bn; £1.8bn) to the port, 3.9bn euros net economic benefit for Valencia, and 6bn euros benefit for Spain.

"It has been the core of Valencia's regeneration," says Sir Keith.

Childhood interest

Sir Keith adds that despite its low-key media coverage, there are thousands of sailing clubs up and down the country offering the sport to people of all incomes and ages, including children.

As part of what it says is a renewed interest in sailing, Team Origin says that there was a 38% increase in participation in sailing in the UK between 2005/06 and 2007/08.

I have as much fun racing my 30-year-old clinker-built dinghy as I do racing the big boats
Sir Keith Mills

In addition, the British Olympic sailing team topped the sailing medals tables at the Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, and Beijing 2008 games.

Sir Keith, who was enthralled by sailing as a child of 10, has a cottage at Salcombe in Devon, which he uses as a base for messing about on the water.

"I have always been fascinated by it," he says.

"I have as much fun racing my 30-year-old clinker-built dinghy as I do racing the big boats," he says.

Meanwhile, as well as the America's Cup challenge, he also wears a number of other sports' hats, covering World Cup and Premier League football, as well as being deputy chairman of the London 2012 organising committee.

"Olympic games come to countries once in a lifetime," he says.

"But the London games are more than just a sporting event. We want to encourage kids into sport, regenerate the East End of London, and also put on the most environmentally sustainable games in history."

He says winning the Olympic did was "very much about doing something for the country".

Pausing, he adds: "My America's Cup challenge, however, is a real personal challenge that I am doing for myself and my sport of sailing".

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