Business

Making the America’s Cup cool

What Larry Ellison wants, he usually gets. After all, he is the sixth-richest man in the world.

Image caption Can Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle team bring the magic to the America's Cup?

"We want to sail in boats that are spectacular," he tells the BBC. "It's got to be a cool sport."

He is talking about his plans to reform the America's Cup, the oldest active international trophy in sport.

The founder of the software giant Oracle has invited us to board his private yacht in Copenhagen to tell us more.

"Just put these slippers on first, if you don't mind," says a glamorous assistant, keen to protect the many acres of on-board carpet.

It turns out she is one of 47 crew members who work on board The Rising Sun.

"It's actually made of candy," jokes Larry Ellison, when he eventually appears. "You can eat the whole thing."

Joking aside, Larry is a serious sailor himself, and is passionate about the task of revamping the America's Cup.

As owner of the team which currently holds the trophy, BMW Oracle, it falls to him to decide the rules, and the location, of the next cup, due in 2013 or 2014.

No plain sailing

Since it began in front of Queen Victoria in 1851, the history of the America's Cup has not been plain sailing.

With no governing body, the Cup has been fraught with arguments between teams, with as much action in the law courts as on the water.

Most recently, the New York Court of Appeals was asked to rule on who was the legal challenger to the Swiss team, Alinghi, which won the 32nd America's Cup in 2007.

Eventually the court ruled that the US team, BMW Oracle, was the valid challenger.

In a one-off race in Valencia last February, the Americans won the Cup, in a multi-hulled boat which was 90ft (30m) long.

But in commercial terms, the race was a huge disappointment, as the present basis of the Cup provides little incentive for sponsors to come on board.

Television coverage

To get sponsors, argues Larry Ellison, you first have to get viewers.

"It's incumbent on us, as the America's Cup winner, to take this sport to the overall public via television," he says.

Sceptics may say that sailing on television will just never be as exciting as Formula One racing, and never have the drama of Open Golf.

Image caption Larry Ellison is a determined man

But Larry Ellison argues that no one expected Texas poker to make it on TV, and that is hardly a sport.

"We have to do a much better job of getting cameras on board the boat - of getting microphones on the driver and technician," he says.

Russell Coutts, the team's chief executive and four times winner of the cup, believes TV coverage could be a lot more compelling.

"I think things like getting the graphics superimposed on the video images will make a big difference," he says.

The team is also looking at new technology which might allow viewers to choose which boat to view.

Such technology is already used by Formula One, to allow spectators to monitor radio traffic between the teams and drivers.

IBM showed off another device at Wimbledon this year, through which fans can select different tennis games simply by pointing their smartphone at the court in question.

Sea miles

Other teams appear to be supportive of Larry Ellison's ideas.

We joined the British America's Cup team, as they practised for a trophy event off Marseille in the south of France.

Flying in by helicopter was Sir Keith Mills, a billionaire who made his money in advertising and by inventing the concept of Air Miles.

Image caption Team Origin know they have a fight on their hands

He has had to pour tens of millions of pounds into Team Origin, as the British team is called.

But he acknowledges that an America's Cup which attracted television viewers would also attract more sponsors, relieving him and other rich industrialists of having to foot the bill.

"Sadly the America's Cup isn't yet able to stand on its own feet commercially. But I think that day is coming."

He says Larry Ellison is definitely thinking along the right lines.

"The Americans recognise how important television is," he says, "and that's what's going to build the viewers to make the whole thing commercially viable."

No second place

Partly to publicise Larry Ellison's plans, the American and British America's Cup teams will race against each other later this week.

On Thursday, BMW Oracle and Team Origin will battle it out around the Isle of Wight, in a historic re-run of the original 1851 race which saw the Americans win the cup for the first time.

As they crossed the finish line, Queen Victoria asked who was in second place.

"Ah Madam, there is no second," was said to have been the reply.

In the sense that the final of the America's Cup has always been a duel between two countries, that remark remains true today.

Image caption Team Origin hope to be the first British team to win the America's Cup

But had Queen Victoria been interested in the full extent of Britain's sporting failure at the time, she could equally well have been informed that the Americans had beaten no less than 13 other boats, all of them British.

And while the US once held the cup for 132 years running, the British, who pride themselves on being a seafaring nation, have never once lifted the trophy.

"We want to put that right," says Ben Ainslie, the skipper of Team Origin.

Britain's best ever sailor, with three Olympic gold medals and a silver, is confident that next time the Brits may be in with a chance of victory.

But he's also looking forward to a much stronger America's Cup.

"BMW Oracle has a lot of responsibility to put together a new event, a new class of boat, and some fair rules."

If Larry Ellison manages to achieve that, it will be the America's Cup itself which could be on the biggest winning streak of all.