Sailing: British entry in America's Cup may be sunk by cash shortfall

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The Independent Online

The America's Cup, the world's oldest international sporting event, is about to sail into European waters for the first time since it was lost to the New World in 1851.

The America's Cup, the world's oldest international sporting event, is about to sail into European waters for the first time since it was lost to the New World in 1851.

But the 32nd gathering of the world's rich and powerful, who have sometimes been obsessed with victory to the point of penury, could be about to take place without Britain, the spiritual home of the event.

The British team, GBR Challenge America's Cup, has just three weeks to finalise a deal to be ready in time to compete in Valencia in 2007. A computer tycoon, Peter Harrison, has bankrolled the challenge with £25m but he says he will pull out unless corporate sponsors can come up with a further £20m to see through his dream.

Gordon Moultrie, the team's principal, is in the process of preparing the boat and its crew. But as for the prospect of Britain not entering? "I just can't go there," he said yesterday. "Along with the Olympics and Formula One, this is going to be among the top four most important global sporting events of the next five years."

The problem has been convincing big companies to sign up for what has become, in a rapidly commercialising sport, a year-round rather than once every four-year commitment. A deal is said to be close but it has been stalled at boardroom level for 12 months.

According to some at Skandia Cowes Week this week, one of the problems has been in finding a big-name skipper for GBR. While sailing is one of the few real gold medal prospects at Athens, the UK's leading yachtsmen have already signed for foreign teams. Ben Ainslie will skipper Team New Zealand, while Iain Percy has joined the Italians. Ellen MacArthur, perhaps the biggest name in the sport, is a long-distance specialist rather than team racer.

The dearth of internationally recognisable faces has long deterred television from embracing the sport and the casual viewer is often left bemused by sailing jargon and tactics.

But organisers say that yachting is one of the few growth areas left in international sport. To get the sponsors on board, and their logos on camera, it is vital that the event is televised. A deal to distribute pictures from Valencia has already been signed with Trans World International. Nothing, however, is settled with national stations, although talks are said to be well advanced.

Unlike in New Zealand - when the time difference meant that, in this part of the world, races took place in the middle of the night - the forthcoming event will be staged in European prime time. Other hopes are pinned on the new "virtual spectator" graphics which will explain the intricacies of sailing and perhaps do for the sport what technology has done for cricket.

But still the sponsors teeter. Leslie Ryan, GBR marketing manager, concedes that the sport has suffered an image problem, but insists it is changing. "It has been seen as elitist, but in sponsorship terms this can be a positive thing as it appeals to decision makers."

Luxury brands such as Land Rover and Burberry have been courted by the business teams. The big financial institutions and technology companies are also being wooed, with directors offered the chance to indulge in a little on-board corporate hospitality. They will also get the chance to sail with the boat in live competition, under the so-called 17th crew option.