- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

The tycoons are back in the America's Cup. Billionaires by the boatload have turned out for the five-month battle for the oldest trophy in sports, which starts tomorrow in Auckland, New Zealand.
An unprecedented number of syndicates are being backed by wealthy individuals hoping to use their liquid assets to lift the 151-year-old America's Cup off two-time defending champion Team New Zealand.
"Maybe we were all inspired by Ted Turner," joked Craig McCaw, the Seattle telecommunications billionaire and financial backer of Reston-based Nextel Communications who is supporting OneWorld Challenge, one of three U.S. syndicates.
No fewer than four billionaires at least they were above the threshold before the economy dipped below the waterline are in this America's Cup. A fifth, Swedish media magnate Jan Stenbeck, died of a heart attack last month, but his Victory Challenge sails on with yachts named Orm and Orn.
The America's Cup has always attracted the superrich willing to spend large fortunes trying to win sailing's biggest prize.
Tea baron Thomas Lipton challenged the New York Yacht Club five times from 1899 to 1930, losing each time. Tom Sopwith, of Sopwith Camel biplane fame, challenged and lost twice, in 1934 and 1937, both times to Harold Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt also beat Lipton in his final try.
There was Baron Marcel Bich of Bic pens fame, who failed four times to become the challenger, and of course "Captain Outrageous" himself, Mr. Turner, who defended the Cup in 1977.
With big wallets, often bigger egos and accompanying idiosyncrasies, tycoons invariably make the America's Cup much more than just a regatta.
"Watching an America's Cup race in and of itself is boring," said Bill Koch, the Kansas oil tycoon who set the stuffy yachting world on its stern when he won the Cup in 1992, doing a good bit of steering himself.
"What's fascinating is watching all the interaction and personalities. The prefight antics and theatrics are much more interesting than the actual fight itself."
These are the America's Cup's new-monied captains of industry:
Software mogul Larry Ellison, 58, of Oracle Corp., the so-called bad boy of Silicon Valley. Mr. Ellison, a champion ocean racer, has an $85 million campaign, funded mostly from his fortune. BMW chipped in an estimated $20 million and thus the name Oracle BMW Racing. Mr. Ellison has, however, lost some $35 billion in two years as Oracle slumped. In seven months, he has dropped from being the fifth-richest person in the world to being the ninth-richest American, at $15.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Mr. McCaw, 53, went to Stanford University and built the largest cellular company in the United States, McCaw Communications, in the early 1980s. Mr. McCaw is so low key he is barely mentioned on OneWorld Challenge's Web site. "I'm too boring to be there," he said.
Ernesto Bertarelli, 37, who has an master's of business administration degree from Harvard University, leads only the second syndicate to try from landlocked Switzerland, the whimsically named Alinghi Challenge. Mr. Bertarelli, head of a biotech conglomerate, hired away the best sailors money could buy, including two-time winning skipper Russell Coutts and his top lieutenant, Brad Butterworth, from Team New Zealand.
Back for a second try, but definitely among the deep pockets and strong personalities, is Patrizio Bertelli of Italy's Prada Challenge, whose wife, Miuccia Prada, heads the Italian fashion house Prada.
Mr. Bertelli, 56, is the George Steinbrenner of sailing.
After the Italians blew an early lead in Race 4 of the 2000 America's Cup, he criticized his crew's decision not to cover Team New Zealand. "Suicidal tactics gave the race away to Team New Zealand on Russell Coutts' 38th birthday," Mr. Bertelli said in a statement faxed to reporters.
The nine challengers will spend some $500 million combined, and only one will make it through to face Team New Zealand in the America's Cup final starting Feb. 15.
A second Italian syndicate, Mascalzone Latino (roughly translated: Latin Rascal) and GBR Challenge from Britain are owned by multimillionaires. Rounding out the field are France, which is sponsored by a nuclear power company; and Mr. America's Cup himself, Dennis Conner, a professional sailor with a moderate $40 million budget who has just as good a chance of winning as the big-money boys.
"The Bs," as Mr. Conner calls them, have various reasons for going after the Cup. Unlike owners of pro sports teams, who have to watch from the luxury suites or sidelines, sailing tycoons can be part of the action.
"I want to be driving the winning boat," Mr. Ellison said late last year.
Mr. Bertelli started sailing when he was 25 "and never stopped," he said.
He was aboard Luna Rossa for some races in 1999-2000 as the 17th man, a non-sailing spot for the owner or his representative. However, after the mast snapped in a challenger semifinal race, he felt he brought bad luck and didn't sail again.
"For us, the America's Cup always been first of all a sporting challenge, not a marketing or an advertising exercise, and still is," he said.
However, he said analysts estimated the exposure in the last America's Cup was worth $90 million to Prada.
"Of course we were happy with this outcome."


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