An Impressive P.R. Show

The foiling circus of America’s Cup 34 envelops San Francisco.

America's Cup 34 marketing

Promotion of the 34th America's Cup is everywhere in San Francisco, including on the sides of city buses.David Schmidt

Say what you will about Larry Ellison and the manner in which he chose to defend the 34th America’s Cup, but I can tell you this: The man knows how to command attention. Of course, this is far easier done for a guy who is reportedly worth more than the Federal Reserve than it is for your average regatta director, but Ellison and his public relations teams have done an impressive job of transforming a city into a foiling circus.

As someone who frequently scribbles about sailing, I’ve seen my share of regattas, from humble Wednesday night beer-can chases to Grand Prix war-chest endeavors. Typically, there’s a ton of buzz emanating from the host yacht club, but this usually dissipates by the time you reach downtown. Even the London 2012 Summer Olympics scarcely made any hullabaloo about sailing, and, frustratingly, the racing was held in the sleepy coastal town of Weymouth, where there was little else vying for the town’s attention.

So you can imagine my surprise when I spied a San Francisco city bus wrapped in AC34-specific livery. Closer inspection revealed AC34 flags, posters, stickers, banners and more liveried busses everywhere—not just near Marina Green or the Embarcadero, where the racing takes place. Here, waiters, shopkeepers and baristas are all hip to Ellison's wingsail-powered trip … even if they're not happy about it.

I usually leave regattas impressed by the number of polished teams and somewhat puzzled by the greater community’s tone-deaf reception. Here, it’s the inverse: The city embraced this event more than the sailing community, as evidenced by the number of challengers (first three, now one). The reasons are manifold, but ultimately the bottom line—something that Ellison likely doesn’t spend much time pondering—was to blame, given the (ballpark) $100 million that was required to foil on AC34’s rarified waters.

Most San Franciscans whom I’ve engaged feel a bit jaded by the bills that the “Summer of Slumber” generated for the taxpayers (a much longer story). Fortunately, this attitude seems to be improving now that there’s a real regatta unfurling—or maybe it’s because San Francisco’s least-popular billionaire is getting soundly trounced—but the relatively low level of energy radiating from the event itself seems disproportionate to the amount of citywide preparation and anticipation

Not surprisingly, the ongoing Superyacht Regatta—a three-day regatta within a regatta—is receiving virtually no publicity. The racing doesn’t feature close finishing-line Deltas, but there are eight yachts participating in two divisions—Racing and Exhibition—and I can assure you that they’re doing just fine. The Superyacht Regatta resumes on Friday, so please stay tuned to this space for more news.

As for any San Franciscans who might be feeling underwhelmed by their city’s ROI from this Cup cycle, it could be worse: Ask the residents of Valencia, Spain, about Ernesto Bertarelli’s vision for transforming their city into a longtime Cup venue, and the liveried buses, flags and even the (vocal) Kiwi fans don’t seem so bad.