America’s Cup: Russell Coutts aiming for F1 on water

Story highlights

Coutts has won five America's Cup trophies in total

Three as a sailor and two as team boss

Kiwi is CEO of 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda

London CNN  — 

For Russell Coutts, nothing will ever come close to winning Olympic gold and three America Cups as a sailor.

But transforming the America’s Cup from a pastime for the super wealthy into a fast-paced television event with global appeal may come a close second for the Kiwi sailing legend turned boss of international sport’s oldest trophy.

“To be involved in (the America’s Cup) is, if not equally exciting, very close to it,” said Coutts, who won his first race at the age of nine in a small wooden dinghy off the coast of Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island.

‘Sailed with great teams’

“I don’t necessarily think one is better than the other,” Coutts said by phone from New Zealand when asked if he preferred sailing over business.

Russell Coutts in 2015.

“As a sailor, it was a tremendous amount of fun,” said the 54-year-old, the most successful helmsman in America’s Cup history whose 14-0 record in the 1995, 2000 and 2003 editions is unrivaled.

“I sailed with some great teams,” said Coutts, who is chief executive of the America’s Cup Event Authority which organizes the 35th edition of sailing’s elite race next year in Bermuda.

“On the event side, I’ve worked with great people as well and achieved a lot since 2010, in particular in developing the media and television side.”

Coutts clinched an Olympic gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games in the Finn Class and won two more America’s Cup trophies in 2010 and 2013 as CEO of defending champions Oracle Team USA.

READ: Russell Coutts wants to expand America’s Cup format to 12 teams

Taking the Cup into a new era

He is one of the main architects of transforming what is affectionately known as the “Auld Mug” into something akin to “Formula One on water.”

Coutts won his three Cups between 1995 and 2003 in elegant monohull yachts going no faster than 14mph in races that took place far away from the shore.

AC35 by the numbers

  • • 20 broadcasters to show races in more than 150 countries
  • • 600,000 spectators watched World Series races in Chicago, New York, Portsmouth and Toulon
  • • 850 hours of TV broadcast
  • • 175 million cumulative viewers

    The 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco was staged in front of thousands of spectators close to the shore in hydrofoil catamarans capable of going up to 50mph.

    READ: How Oracle Team USA staged one of sport’s greatest comebacks in 2013

    The new format, with Emmy Award-winning, virtual, on-screen graphics explaining the races to a layman audience, was a hit with television viewers worldwide.

    While Coutts often had to sail as long as three hours when he competed in the Cup, the 35th edition (AC35) next year in Bermuda’s Great Sound will be decided by races lasting no more than 22 minutes.

    READ: will mind or machine win the day in Bermuda?

    Raising the bar

    Just like during his sailing days, Coutts is setting the bar high as an executive, saying more people are going to watch the 35th edition than any previous America’s Cup.

    Teams lining up for the start in Portsmouth in July 2016.

    “I’m pretty confident about that now,” he said. “It’s appealing not only to the sailing audience but also to a non-sailing audience.”

    Innovations include 3D cameras and more on-board cameras to give television viewers a better idea of what’s it like to sail the powerful boats that seem to fly over the water.

    Britain’s Land Rover BAR syndicate, headed by Olympic sailing legend Ben Ainslie, won the 2015-16 Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series ahead of teams from New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, France and the US.

    Ainslie’s team wrapped up the title with a race to spare at the final leg of the series in Fukuoka, Japan on Sunday.

    READ: Swedish success in Toulon as GB leads the series

    The six syndicates will take part in two qualifying events next May and June with the winner taking on defending champions Oracle Team USA for the America’s Cup in Bermuda.

    ‘Anyone can win it’

    “It’s exciting and dramatic racing and we’re very fortunate these days to have a very close competition between the teams,” Coutts said.

    “It’s very hard to judge at this point who is going to be strong for the final races in next May and June. Most people would say any one of those teams can win races and certainly most of the teams are capable of going on and winning the America’s Cup overall.”

    The new format and the strong competition between the six teams that all hail from different countries is boosting interest from broadcasters and sponsors, Coutts said.

    “We are tracking ahead of the previous edition in terms of pretty much all of the metrics,” Coutts said. “Compelling racing is really what drives viewership. People turn on the TV to see something that’s exciting and largely unpredictable.”

    Bermuda 2017

    In a first for the 165-year-old event, next year’s Cup will be witnessed by the biggest fleet of large yachts with 80 superyachts registered to attend. About 46 cruise ships plan to visit Bermuda in the month leading up to the Cup.

    One thing Coutts won’t be able to do is top the attendance figures of the 2013 America’s Cup, when organizers estimated about one million people flocked to San Francisco Bay to watch the races live.

    AC social media hits

  • • 71 million Facebook impressions
  • • 10.8 million Twitter impressions
  • • 2 million video views on You Tube/Facebook

    Bermuda, with a population of 65,000, is a small island archipelago located in the North Atlantic and east of South Carolina.

    “Bermuda doesn’t have the same infrastructure as a large city,” Coutts said, pointing out it only has 2,600 hotel rooms. “But it’s going to be a very attractive event, there is no doubt about that.

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    “It’s fair to say there will be a significant number of thousands of people attending the events. I don’t think it will be hundreds of thousands.”