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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Six teams including some of the world's best sailors were set to race ultra-light, high-tech catamarans at near highway speeds around New York Harbor this weekend in what organizers hope is a mass appeal on-water event, all done on smaller budgets than past pre-America's Cup competitions.The thousands of shoreline spectators expected to line the Hudson River will not come away with an impression of an elite regatta being pulled off on the cheap in one of the world's most expensive cities.The Saturday and Sunday races help select the final two teams to vie for the oldest trophy in sports, known as the "Auld Mug." The America's Cup race has been held every few years since 1851, except for pauses during the world wars.New York kicks off the two U.S. legs of the 14-month plus America's Cup World Series (ACWS).
Races have already been held in Portsmouth, England, Gothenberg, Sweden, Bermuda and Oman and will move to Chicago, Toulon, France and possibly Japan. The ACWS is a showcase tour for high performance 44-foot twin-hulled sailboats known as AC45Fs, which can travel at speeds of over 37 knots (42.5 miles per hour) and rise up on retractable hydrofoil keels and rudders that reduce drag and create the appearance of flying over the surface of the water.The designs will be scaled up to 50 feet for the America's Cup in Bermuda.The boats and crews are indeed smaller than the 2013 America's Cup in San Francisco, where runaway costs to design, build and sail customized, cutting edge 72-foot catamarans sometimes exceeded $100 million per team and limited the number of competitors.The winner of the ACWS will have a two-point advantage going into the Louis Vuitton America's Cup qualifiers beginning in May 2017, the series that decides which team will challenge software tycoon Larry Ellison's defending Oracle Team USA for the America's Cup next summer in Bermuda's Great Sound.In order to participate in the America's Cup World Series, and eventually the America's Cup races, competitors have to put up a $1 million entry fee and a $2 million bond to guarantee that they will maintain their campaigns through the ACWS as well as competition in Bermuda, America's Cup protocol indicates. Oracle Team USA has five challengers who have committed to the entire competition, Artemis Racing from Sweden, Emirates Team New Zealand, Groupama Team France, Softbank Team Japan and Land Rover BAR, the English entrant.Each team depends on its sponsors to fund its boats, salaries, design and development teams and gear. In contrast to the spending in the last America's Cup this time budgets for some teams are between $30 and $50 million for the ACWS and the America's Cup.Despite the smaller budgets, the aim of the ACWS is akin to the Formula-1 auto racing concept, where the races take place in different venues around the world to help develop a larger fan base, America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA) CEO Russell Coutts said.The rules governing the America's Cup are now designed, in part, to prevent teams from entering a spending race. The six teams in the ACWS have to fit their race boat, the solid wing-like sail, a chase boat, a workshop and all their gear into only four 40-foot containers. Only eleven people are allowed to touch the boats during the week teams have to get the boat ready for each tour stop’s competition. This means that even the world class sailors themselves, part of the eleven, help to put together the boats at each event.
Land Rover BAR's sailing team manager Jono Macbeth says teams are saving at every turn, his team's safety diver does triple duty as the team's fitness coach as well as a boat assembly technician.This means that sponsors are seeing a bigger bang for their buck compared with the last America's Cup series. On average, global sponsors see every dollar they spend return $7 worth of quantifiable brand exposure in their key territories, ACEA Chief Communications Officer Will Chignell said in an email.
Sponsors, able to put their brands on the sail, the boat, and the sailor's gear, are a big part of the America's Cup's goal of commercial sustainability. Keeping them happy is important.Dean Barker said his sponsor Softbank, the Japanese telecommunications and technology company "feels that they have seen an exceptionally good return already on what money that they are putting in."Ellison, who won the cup in 2013 and with it the right to set the rules for this year's race, hoped to make the 165-year-old competition more accessible to everyday sports fans and push the boundaries of high-tech boat design.
Knowing his sport faces unique challenges as teams of sailors seek sponsors willing to fund competitions, speaking tongue-in-cheek at a press conference Nathan Outteridge skipper for Artemis Racing said, "We're going to be bigbillboards ripping around."
Reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by Alden Bentley