When Oracle Team USA completed a stunning comeback yesterday to retain the America’s Cup, winning eight consecutive races, it was indeed a big sporting moment. It even had us skeptics at the Bay Guardian, who had already expressed sympathies for the Kiwi team, anxiously following the action. But the question remains whether this overhyped sailing competition will be a win for the host city of San Francisco.
That verdict won’t come in until November when race organizers and city officials finish collecting and counting revenues and expenditures related to the regatta. But it’s certain to be better from a fiscal perspective than it looked like a week ago, when the New Zealand team seemed to be headed for a blowout victory.
For Larry Ellison — Oracle co-founder, team owner, lead champion for the AC-72 cause and de facto face of the 34th America's Cup — it must have felt like a disaster. His $100-plus million nautical investment was tanking, attendance and revenue figures were falling far short of expectations and the support he had from the local sailing community was quickly turning malignant after Oracle lost the day's only race, falling to 1-8 and facing seven consecutive match-points.
But then Oracle started winning. They figured out the tricky upwind legs that had plagued them for the first two weeks of racing. They replaced their fired tactician with four-time Olympic gold medal winner Ben Ainslie. They started beating the snot out of Team New Zealand and in the races they were losing, Mother Nature would toss them lifesavers disguised as strange patches of wind.
After weeks of fumbling, it looked like the moles had found their own mallet and were whacking away at their tormentors, and they were doing so to the tune of an unprecedented winning streak. And with it, the America's Cup image underwent a radical transformation; both in sport and in reception.
The change in sport is simple — both teams have figured out how to race the 13-story tall sailboats through the unpredictable weather patterns and intense ebb tides —but the change in reception is anything but. As of last Wednesday, Pier 27 was dominated by Team New Zealand supporters. Nearly everyone in attendance was waving a New Zealand flag or wearing one, and the few Oracle fans left seemed to be nothing more than lost tourists who stumbled upon the international event.
But support for Oracle steadily grew during their winning streak -- Americans do love a winner -- and now it looks like support for the event has been as well, something that can be attributed both to Oracle's winning streak and the necessity for Kiwi fans to finally go home after over a month of competition.
As four-time Cup attendee Sonny Shaw told the Guardian, "I had to change my flight and pay a lot of money, about 400 US dollars at this stage, to stay till [Tuesday]. I was hoping it would be finished by Monday."
As it was every single Kiwi in the park. But the numbers are representative of this trend: As of Sept. 18, according to Cup organizers, the gates had drawn just 700,000 of the 2 million anticipated attendees. Ellison and his team had raised $16.5 million of the $20 million needed to offset the city’s costs (with a reported $14 million going toward the reimbursement), and broadcasts were drawing about 1 million viewers domestically, which meant that the Cup was failing to deliver on virtually all of its promises.
But the extra race days have drummed up interest both in the competition and in the precariously perched Oracle Team USA. The crowds — by the end ostensibly split between Emirates and Oracle as each passing day thins out the Kiwi crowds — became far larger, more raucous and more star-spangled.
The decks were packed, the cheers are both loud and informed, and the local venom present for the first week-and-a-half of racing is at a minimum.
Even expectations might be met. The overall goal of 2 million attendees still seems downright impossible, but as of Monday evening, 926,000 official attendees had been counted, not including those who watched the race outside of officially designated areas (up 226,000 in less than a week, according to Cup officials). In addition to the attendance spike, the 6,500 jobs that were created for the event are still paying out and the extra time only increases the likelihood that the full $20 million bill the City was expected to foot will be offset by private funds.
It was a helluva ride, San Francisco. Was it worth it? We’ll see.