Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

America's Cup finances not plain sailing

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

The BMW Oracle boat in training for the America's Cup
BMW Oracle are set to face holders Alinghi in a multihull duel in Valencia

After years of legal wrangling the America' Cup sailing race is poised to get under way this week in Valencia.

Bad weather delayed the start on Monday, but that postponement is as nothing compared to the years of court battles that have taken place since 2007.

The billionaires behind the two teams involved in the 33rd edition of the prestigious race have been exchanging court broadsides for the past 30 months.

And that has helped hole below the water the economic benefits around the race, including sponsorship and broadcasting deals.

'Sideline event'

US software magnate Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle team is challenging the holders, the Alinghi team, which is backed by Italian-born biotechnology tycoon Ernesto Bertarelli.

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
There is usually a contest to find a challenger, in 1997 this was called the Louis Vuitton World Series
Last British team to take part in the America's Cup as the official challenger was the Royal Thames Yacht Club in 1964

Oracle, sailing under the colours of San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, and Alinghi, aligned to the Societe Nautique de Geneve, have been arguing over the rules since the Swiss team beat Team New Zealand in the last edition in Valencia in July 2007.

Oracle and Alinghi have battled for more than two years over who had the right to challenge Alinghi, the kind of boats they could sail in, and the technology to be used in the three-race challenge.

Rough estimates are that each side has spent $200m (£128m) on their campaigns, including hefty lawyers' fees.

So now it looks like not only the billionaire duo - landed with hefty legal bills - but also the America's Cup itself are going to be out of pocket.

"There is an enormous contrast between what happened three years ago and now," says Professor Tom Cannon, from the University of Liverpool Management School.

"Then, it was an enormous event, and it was the third-largest sporting event after the football World Cup and the Olympics in terms of gross economic impact.

"Now we have gone from a sport worth billions to the local economy, yachting in general and in terms of technological development, to a sideline event."

He estimates that the overall economic impact will be one tenth of the 5bn euros ($7bn; £4.4bn) it was worth last time.

'Step back'

The dispute has seen sponsors such as Banco Santander, UBS and Nestle head for the horizon, and the race organising budget has been reduced to just 8m euros from a record 230m euros in 2007.

A crew member works on the Alinghi boat
Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli admits the event has been affected

The event is airing on the internet for the first time, with experts saying the value of the TV media rights is limited because the event could potentially be over in just a handful of days.

The 32nd America's Cup, held in Valencia in 2007, made a profit of 66m euros shared between 12 teams that had taken part in the cup and the qualification series, then known as the Louis Vuitton World Series.

"From the point of view of the event, the fans, the sponsors - yes, we've taken a big step back," Mr Bertarelli admitted recently.

"Let's try to get away from the past two years of troubles and discussions and let's see who has the fastest boat."

'Sponsorship disappeared'

The legal rows have meant that, for the first time since 1988, there has been no preliminary qualification round of races - known in 1997 as the Louis Vuitton World Series - to select the official challenger.

Born in Italy in 1965, now Swiss-based
Inherited biotech firm Serono when his father died in 1998
Number 52 on Forbes' annual rich list
Estimated net worth of 8.2bn euros ($11.2bn; £7.22bn)
He has won the last two America's Cups

Consequently, potential challengers from countries - including South Africa, Italy and New Zealand, among others - that competed last time, have been shut out.

As have their boats, and the big name sponsorships they carried last time.

"Two types of sponsorship have disappeared, which has been a massive blow," says Professor Cannon.

"The first kind of sponsors were those backing a boat in the Louis Vuitton qualifying series. The last time round there was interest from China, US, Germany, Spain, and more, all with their own boats and sponsors.

Born in US in 1964
Co-founder and CEO of software firm Oracle Corporation
Number 4 on Forbes' annual rich list
Estimated net worth of 22.5bn euros ($31bn; £19.8bn)

"Also, last time, with the inclusion of the qualifying series, the event lasted for a few months.

"So, if you were, for example, BMW, you could bring clients and dealers from around the world to Valencia for a period of time around the event.

"There is a much smaller window this time for that type of corporate hosting."

'Event undermined'

In addition, Spanish city Valencia calculated that hosting the America's Cup in 2007 brought benefits of 2bn euros to its port, and 3.9bn euros net economic benefit for Valencia.

The economic take for the city of Valencia will be down on 2007

But Professor Cannon says: "The impact of the America's Cup has been reduced now.

"It has not had the tourism, sponsorship, or media spend around it this time."

And the courtroom saga is not finished yet.

In the latest row, Oracle accused Alinghi of breaking nationality rules by using US-made sails.

But Judge Shirley Kornreich of the Supreme Court of the State of New York said she will not hear the case until March.

"The focus is so much on the litigation, and the attention of the non-specialist media this time on the America's Cup has been tiny," says Professor Cannon.

"There is a real risk a 160-year-old event is being undermined.

"It has been reduced from a very major event to a minor one."

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