America’s Cup Is Headed For A Dramatic Finale, But What Is The America’s Cup?


America's Cup competitors in San Francisco Bay.

America’s Cup competitors in San Francisco Bay.

CREDIT: Sky Sports

This afternoon in San Francisco Bay, two sailing teams will battle in a winner-take-all race for the America’s Cup. The American team, Oracle Team USA, is trying to complete a huge comeback to defeat Emirates Team New Zealand, adding drama to the world’s oldest and most prestigious boat race.

Chances are, the America’s Cup finale won’t be a big draw in the United States, since most American sports fans probably don’t know what the America’s Cup is. A million Americans tuned in to watch the America’s Cup for the beginning races, according to Reuters, which falls well short of the number for an average baseball, football, or basketball game. But that number still surpassed expectations even for a Cup that was made-for-TV, and since the final race in Americans’ dramatic comeback attempt is scheduled to happen — and air on TV — this afternoon, here are the basics about the America’s Cup, which I’m still learning about myself:

What is the America’s Cup?

A sailboat race.

That’s it?

Of course not. It’s the oldest and most important yacht race in the world. America, which rather shockingly was an American boat, won the first race over 15 other boats from England in 1851, and the trophy has henceforth been known as the “America’s Cup,” which makes it the oldest trophy in sports. This year’s version is the 34th America’s Cup.

Only 34?

They don’t hold the America’s Cup every year. It generally takes place every three to four years, though it varies. For the first 20 America’s Cups, it occurred only when one yacht club challenged the defending yacht club to a race, and there was only one challenger in each instance. Then, in 1970, there was more than one challenger, so they all held a separate series of races to determine who got to go against the defending champion. Now they call that series of challenger races the Louis Vuitton Cup. Emirates Team New Zealand won that series this time around, so they got to challenge Oracle Team USA in the America’s Cup.

Do Americans always win the America’s Cup?

They win a lot. The U.S., and specifically the New York Yacht Club, won the first 25 America’s Cups before losing to an Australian team in 1983. Altogether, an American team has won 29 of the 33 America’s Cups. Pretty good record.

So why isn’t it popular here?

It’s a niche sport here, especially among the wealthy. Ted Turner is a fan. So is Larry Ellison, the billionaire businessman who financed the American team that won the cup in 2010 and is back to defend his crown this year. Ellison is so invested in the Cup that he skipped a customer conference for his business, Oracle, so he could watch his team. And it’s huge in New Zealand, where a quarter of the country’s population is watching this year’s America’s Cup on television. New Zealand’s government, in fact, dumped more than $30 million into efforts to win the Cup. But in the U.S., it’s mostly financed by people like Ellison.

Where is this year’s? And why?

San Francisco. Well, the winner of the previous America’s Cup gets to pick the location of the next one, plus the course set-up and the type of boat. So Ellison chose San Francisco, where he could put it in the Bay and draw spectators down to watch, with the added bonus of concerts. And get this: while the America’s Cup is usually a best-of-seven or best-of-nine series, that wasn’t good enough for Ellison. He made it a best-of-19!

What kind of boats do they use?

Ellison wanted this to be the fastest America’s Cup ever, so he financed the design of winged catamarans that also have a mechanism on the bottom that lets the wind lift them out of the water. That makes the boats look like they’re flying, and it also makes them really fast. The AC72, as the boats are known, allows the boats to reach speeds exceeding 40 knots (50 miles per hour). According to the New York Times, Ellison’s boat is so technologically advanced that only three other teams could afford to challenge Oracle Team USA.

So is it the fastest America’s Cup?

Speed-wise, yes. Time-wise, no. Because the boats are so fast, they are also dangerous — someone died when one of them capsized last year during training — so the wind speeds can’t be as fast as normal. Those dangers have drawn their share of controversy about whether racing is setting aside safety in a quest for speed and the higher TV ratings that may come along with a faster, more thrilling sport.

Waiting for slower wind speeds to avert some of that danger has caused delays, and the America’s Cup has now been going on for 19 days, making it the longest in history.

Why should I watch?

Well, if there’s ever a compelling sailboat race, today’s might be it. The American team, led by the awesomely-named skipper Jimmy Spithill, lost eight of the first nine matches, forcing them to win eight in a row to win the Cup. All appeared lost for the American team. But over the last week or so, the Americans have won seven matches in a row to tie the series, including two on Tuesday. It’s an improbable comeback that American fans are comparing to the Boston Red Sox comeback in 2004. The U.S. wouldn’t be down this far, but thanks to a rules violation, they lost two match points. Still, assuming there are no delays today, the Americans have a chance to end the longest America’s Cup in history with the biggest comeback in America’s Cup history.

Plus, they do go very fast.

What are the rules?

I’m still trying to figure out the intricacies of the sport’s rule book. But essentially, one boat has to beat the other. It’s a race.

OK. You’ve convinced me. What time is the race?

Great! Assuming there are no delays, it starts at 4:15 Eastern time. You can watch it on NBC Sports Network. For a preview, you can watch yesterday’s races here. That should help keep you from becoming this guy.