The cup that does not cheer San Diego

The America's Cup is poised to leave the States but, Stuart Alexander reports, few locals seem concerned
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The Independent Online
While anything can happen in sailing, and the America's Cup is not yet lost, few would bet against the "auld mug" being put on a specially chartered jet and flown to Auckland sometime in the next 10 days.

There will be some sadness about that, and a good deal of celebrating. But too many southern Californians will not even know it has happened. The cup has not been a happy experience for San Diego.

When the cup is over, there will naturally be a slight dip in an economy already hurting because of its reliance on defence contracts - but not as big a dip as might be imagined. Most of all, it will be a time to assess the missed opportunities that the cup presented, says Gerry Driscoll, a director of the San Diego Yacht Club, and a marina operator whose yard played host to the Italians in 1992, and to the Japanese and all-conquering Kiwis in 1995.

Not that the lack of enthusiasm is exactly new. The main celebrations when the local boy, Dennis Conner, won back the cup in 1987 were held in New York and Washington, including a ticker-tape welcome for Conner.

San Diego's disenchantment began in 1988 with the continuous law suits over Michael Fay's challenge from New Zealand in a giant 130-footer. The decision then to defend in a much faster catamaran made a fiasco out of what had been a serious event.

Then in 1992, the SDYC appointed the America's Cup Organising Committee to run the event, and it went broke. Not everyone was paid, expectations of a dollar bonanza were hopelessly exaggerated and the city authorities were in no mood to bail them out. The successful defence by Bill Koch - a multi- millionaire from the heartlands of Kansas who prefers to be based on the east coast - was conducted in an atmosphere of some friction with the SDYC, and many in the club wondered if it was all worth it.

This time round, the organisation has at least not been a financial failure, but the perception of the cup has taken another public relations nosedive as the three defence syndicates have ridden roughshod over the club's representatives. What the public expected was a normal competition. What they received was lots of questionable rule-changing followed by supercilious explanations that the America's Cup was different, always had been, and if they did not understand it, tough.

More disillusionment resulted, and it became easier to understand why the city has put so much effort into attracting the Republican Party's presidential convention in 1996, and so little into the America's Cup. "There are very many millions of dollars coming into the local economy, but we haven't been as successful in getting the city as involved as we should have been," Driscoll said. This for an event that lasts nearly five months.

On the other hand, some smaller businesses have been quietly doing well. Gary Becker runs a small car-hire business and estimates that the cup has increased turnover by $100,000 (£64,500) in the first five months of 1995. At times, over 50 per cent of his 100-car fleet has been out on rental to syndicates, umpires and journalists. "It was a business plus, nice people to do business with and a great international flavour," Becker said. In addition, 10 syndicates had people staying in hotels and apartments, over 1,000 journalists from 22 countries were accredited and sponsors flew in thousands of guests.

In the wake of '88, the organisers were advised to do all they could to emulate Fremantle in 1986/87 and have an America's Cup area for all the syndicates and associated activities. They did not. Then in 1995 they were told they should have everyone together, with more access for the public. They did not do that either.

In a California city which has so much to offer, especially out of doors, the citizens were not going to work hard. Visitors wandered around looking for contact with the America's Cup and went away disillusioned.

Even the manner of the Kiwi win is likely to hurt the local economy. It seems highly improbable that the final will require nine races, and each missed race will cost money. With 10 spectator boats taking out 60 passengers at $100 each per day, that in itself could mean a loss of nearly $250,000.

The AC'95 organisation which has been charged with running everything on behalf of the SDYC failed to negotiate a television agreement that would bring the event to the public until the later races. That went to a cable network and the audience figures have been quoted at well under 1 per cent.

When Italy made the cup in 1992, they were claiming a 60 per cent share of the home television audience. In New Zealand, admittedly a small country, the figure is even higher.

In San Diego, where the cup has never been held in the shrine-like awe in which it was placed in the New York Yacht Club, the ladies' bridge fours play on with a total lack of concern. "A lot of people would as soon not have it here because of the intrusion into their enjoyment of the club and privacy," Driscoll said. Their wish should be granted in the next few days.