(Reuters) - This year’s America’s Cup sailing competition could well be called the Larry Ellison show. The billionaire founder of Oracle Corp, who won the Cup in 2010, wanted a TV-friendly spectacle that would raise the profile of yacht racing, and to that end specified hugely expensive, insanely fast, high-tech catamarans dueling on scenic San Francisco Bay.
But as the main event finally gets under way after a disastrous summer that included a fatal accident, a startling absence of spectators and a cheating scandal that could yet cost Oracle Team USA the trophy, Ellison himself is nowhere to be found.
His two monster yachts are docked at San Francisco’s Pier 27, one of the two main event venues. Back in May, Ellison was on hand for a party that featured a hagiographical movie about him, and people close to Oracle say he has regularly been out on the Bay in a chase boat, watching the preliminary races.
Yet, he hasn’t made a single public appearance at the America’s Cup in the last three months. If he had, he wouldn’t likely be derided by the energetic, if small, crowds that have come out for the races; but he probably wouldn’t be cheered either.
Ellison, with a reputation as an abrasive, high-handed figure even in the best of times, is not exactly a local hero. Many San Franciscans objected from the start to the city’s subsidizing a wealthy man’s boat race, and Ellison’s involvement made for an especially easy target in this left-leaning town.
When only three teams turned up to challenge for the Cup -another dozen or so who had expected to compete were scared off by the huge cost of fielding the high-tech boats - critics who said the city would reap little economic benefit from the event were proven correct.
The cheating scandal, in which Oracle team members were found to have illegally added weight to boats used in a preliminary competition, sealed Ellison’s fate as someone the locals love to hate.
The ill will is such that Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill, an Australian, was reduced to pleading for local support at a press conference on Thursday.
“If there was ever a time we needed the people of the USA and San Francisco to get behind us, it’s now,” he exhorted. “If we can get those people behind us at a tough moment like this, well, that’s great. We want to keep this thing here.”
The home-venue advantage, though, may have already been reduced to naught. Emirates Team New Zealand, with no billionaire backer, has cultivated a populist image that plays well in San Francisco.
In his only public comments on the Cup in recent months, made before the cheating scandal came to light, Ellison said on the “Charlie Rose” show that he might have erred around the edges. While defending the decision to go with super-fast multi-hulls, he allowed that “these boats are more expensive than we realized when we designed the Class Rule.”
“I think we’re going to look at it next time around,” he said. “Or we might conduct the next America’s Cup in 45-foot catamarans.”
Of course, if Oracle Team USA doesn’t win, there will be no next time. And for San Francisco, there probably will be no next time even if it does.
Reporting By Jonathan Weber; editing by Gunna Dickson