Given its proximity to Nelson and the recent comparisons, perhaps it’s time to commission a bust of Sir Ben Ainslie, our most decorated seafarer since Admiral Horatio, and be done with the arguments.
Ainslie’s America’s Cup heroics for Oracle Team USA make him a hot sporting property and probably the closest thing a sailor has got to being a household name since Sir Francis Chichester.
Sir Steve Redgrave once joked that it wasn’t until after the Atlanta Olympics, when he’d won his fourth consecutive rowing gold medal, that he was recognised or indeed made any money from his sport.
Ainslie was certainly well recompensed for his services by Oracle team owner Larry Ellison – a man with a fortune of £23 billion and counting – but in his case it has taken one silver, four golds and playing a part in sporting history to finally become an A lister.
Although if the odds for the BBC Sports Personality Award are to be used as a barometer, there is still work to do – he is a 66/1 fifth favourite long shot – behind Andy Murray, Mo Farah, Chris Froome and Carl Froch.
But expect those odds to shorten if Ainslie achieves his ambition of mounting a serious British challenge for sport’s oldest international trophy.
The Auld Mug was first contested on the waters off the Isle of Wight in 1851 and we’ve never won it – indeed we’re 16-times losing finalists, which should make French tennis player Julien Benneteau feel better after he just lost his ninth ATP Tour final.
Great Britain last had a boat in the challenger series – which precedes the main event – in 2003 but has not competed in the America’s Cup itself for nearly half a century. Even landlocked Switzerland has a better record.
But the event is now a sporting arms race, it’s almost quaint that the regatta was famously described as ‘standing in a cold shower tearing up $100 bills’. It’s now a plaything of billionaires not millionaires and big brands with pockets right down to their deck shoes.
However, New Zealand’s government backed their team, beaten by Oracle in gripping style, with £18m in taxpayer money – and it proved a popular policy, even in defeat.
Considering elite funding agency UK Sport is pumping £350m into the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic cycle, surely a similar contribution to Ainslie’s campaign might not be such a stretch?
UK Sport departing chair Baroness Campbell was the architect of the much-admired ‘no compromise’ investment principle for lottery money and no-one sums up that attitude more than Ainslie.
In addition her successor is Rod Carr, a man credited with making Britain a top sailing nation as a former coach, performance director and chief executive of the Royal Yachting Association.
And if London 2012 proved anything it’s the nation can rally behind a team – even in sports that are far from mainstream – and take pride in the fact their hard-owned cash has played a key part in the success.
However, lottery money alone won’t get Ainslie to the start line – others will need to stump up too and they need to be comfortable writing out noughts on cheques.
Ellison spent a rumoured £80m on his winning boat and Team New Zealand – with Emirates and Nespresso among their big brand backers – splashed out £60m to finish second in a race where only the winner counts.
For comparison, the biggest annual budget for an F1 team is the reported £180m at the disposal of Red Bull team principle Christian Horner.
Ellison single handedly bankrolled the US team but pressure is on him, as the Cup’s defender, to introduce some degree of financial fair play. Only three boats competed in the challenger series this year and more are needed if the event is to capitalise on this current wave of enthusiasm next time around.
Indeed Louis Vuitton, the high-end French retailer that has been a long-time financial backer of the challenger series, received a 30 percent rebate on the £6.2m it paid for naming rights because so few teams entered, a clearly unsustainable situation for all concerned.
Ainslie already has an existing relationship with JP Morgan – who sponsored his crew during the 2012/2013 America’s Cup World Series – but he’ll need to be as nimble in the boardroom as he is on the water to persuade others to fund the dream.
The RYA lost key sponsors Skandia and G4S in the wake of London 2012 and Olympic sailing manager Stephen Park has warned more support is needed if world-class British sailors are going to continue to rule the waves.
The prospect of the national governing body and Ainslie pitching against each other is hardly ideal, better still a combined approach based on the understanding that an Olympic programme is crucial to America’s Cup success – as Ainslie and Australia’s Tom Slingsby, the London 2012 Laser gold medallist, proved conclusively in San Francisco last month.
Sir Keith Mills, who tried to fund a British campaign before claiming to be costed out of contention by Ellison’s billions, has indicated he wants to be involved (if the money is sensible) and prefers family of sponsors, supporters and backers.
After all, it’s much easier to secure a big bucks title sponsorship when you own the boat and founded the company whose support you are seeking.
However, it’s not always been a successful approach for previous British challenges. Back in 1980, a British Industry 1500 Club was founded, with members required to pay 1000 Guineas to be involved and the response was pitifully low until Peter de Savary stepped in to save face.
So Ainslie’s challenge just to get on the water, in an event where commercial strategy is as important as on water tactics, would probably equal his four Olympic and ten world titles combined.
But don’t forget the big prize is if does and if he wins.
When Valencia hosted the Cup in 2007 it brought benefits of £1.4bn and an overall economic benefit of £2.7bn to the Spanish port. Do the sums and that’s a much better return on investment than London got from staging the Olympics, with its £9.3bn budget.
For potential sponsors it’s even a ‘Heads I win, Tails you lose’ situation.
Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton tried and failed five times to win the Cup but built his reputation as the world’s most cheerful loser and made Lipton tea a leading brand in the USA and Britain.
So who is up for the challenge? We’ve staged the Olympics, finally won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon and seized yellow at the Tour de France twice…in two years.
The America’s Cup is now the last sporting summit to be conquered and it’s time to end 162 years of maritime misery, with Sir Ben at the helm and a nation providing the wind in his sails.
James Toney is Sportsbeat’s Managing Editor and the author of Sports Journalism: The Inside Track. Follow him on Twitter @jtoneysbeat
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