Oracle Team USA’s remarkable come-from-behind victory, against Emirates Team New Zealand, in the America’s Cup last week marked the fifth time New Zealander Russell Coutts has been part of a Cup winning team.
The 51-year old, a legendary name in Cup history even before his latest triumph, was chief executive of the US team in San Francisco this summer, but also one of the architects of the 34th Cup alongside Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison. Their full vision of a new generation Cup, with the giant, spectacularly rapid but controversial AC72 catamarans, came to life only during the dramatic finale to the competition.
'In many ways you couldn’t have scripted a better sports story,' Coutts told SportsPro. 'Obviously, being inside the team at that moment was challenging but I guess, on reflection, all the difficulties made the outcome even more rewarding, from a team perspective. When we were 8-1 down, whilst we absolutely never gave up, there were many of us – and I can certainly speak from a personal perspective – who thought it was unlikely we’d turn it around. But there was always the hope that we would and always the determination that we would. It was fantastic to be part of a team like that. It was great and from an event standpoint to see the way the race turned out was also very satisfying.'
The highpoint of the finale contrasted sharply with the darkest moment of the summer of racing in San Francisco, the death of British sailor Andrew Simpson in May when his team boat capsized. Safety concerns about the new generation AC72s were matched by question marks over the cost of competing. With a nine-figure budget required to compete, only three challengers made it through a build-up which, for the first time, included the America’s Cup World Series, an offshoot of the main event designed to add value to commercial partners in the long period between Cup matches.
'We obviously had our challenges throughout the series,' Coutts reflects, during a conversation in which he assesses the 34th Cup and the changes required for the next edition, notably his proposal for a permanent America’s Cup commissioner to be appointed to oversee the Cup’s commercial and sporting interest and how costs can be reduced. 'We’d have liked to have had more teams competing and we had difficulties earlier on with, obviously, the Artemis tragedy and other complications,' he notes, 'but at the end the final turned out to be a great series and was a snapshot of what it could be like in the future. It was a nice outcome.' How much do you personally enjoy the negotiation, the debate over legalities and technicalities, element of the America’s Cup, or is that something you just have to live with?
It’s got to change. Right now, and I’ve said it a few times throughout this campaign, the legal people in these teams get way more press coverage than what they deserve – all the arguments over the rules and so forth. It’s, in many ways, an archaic process that the America’s Cup has been putting itself through over many, many years. I think we’ve got to move towards a mechanism other sports use where they, for example, have a commissioner that has the commercial interests of the sport in line, as well as the competitive interests of the teams and can balance that. For example, a lot of the rules issues this time became highly public debates and that’s what most of the press focused on. In a way, those are the sort of issues that should be dealt with swiftly and much more efficiently behind closed doors so that you keep the focus on the racing, on the athletes. The great thing about this America’s Cup is we’ve finally got personalities, like your Ben Ainslies, your Jimmy Spithills, Dean Barkers, that people can focus on and get it away from these lawyers who love to see their names in lights – because frankly it doesn’t add to the sporting values of the competition. There is a counter-argument that some of those controversies add to it and I’m all for that, but in the America’s Cup in the past we’ve been way too much in the category of having too much of that controversy. Is your view shared by the wider America’s Cup community? Is there a mood for change?
Well it’s not a point of view shared by the lawyers, no doubt. I want to take the focus away from that. We made a lot of moves this time, such as setting up America’s Cup Race Management as an independent body that managed the sport side but we still need to address those fundamental problems of how we resolve disputes in the correct way, quietly, in such a way that it doesn’t damage the event commercially. We didn’t really sufficiently address that and it’s time to address that now.
For the full interview click here