Larry Ellison's Amazing Victory and Huge Failure
That feisty underdog -- the $100-million-plus Oracle Team USA -- has completed its miraculous comeback and won the 2013 America’s Cup!
Going into last weekend, the Americans (or at least the one U.S. citizen on the boat) looked sunk: trailing 8-1 and one race away from elimination. But Oracle valiantly fought its way back. Larry Ellison -- No. 8 on Bloomberg's billionaires list -- will get to keep the 162-year-old cup he spent years wrestling away from his longtime nemesis, the Italian-born Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.
Go USA! But before we get too carried away, let’s pause to remember some things that happened on the way to this admittedly thrilling finish. For starters, because of the prohibitive cost of the boats Ellison specified, only four teams competed for the cup, instead of the 15 he’d envisioned.
The boats -- all carbon-fiber catamarans, with massive wingsails -- were not only expensive, they were dangerous. In May, one capsized, killing the British Olympic gold medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson.
America’s remarkable comeback was only necessary because Oracle had been caught cheating -- they’d added illegal weight to their boats -- and had to start the finals against New Zealand at a two-point disadvantage. In case you’re wondering, this is unprecedented in the cup’s history. (“The seriousness of the breaches cannot be understated,” an international jury wrote.)
It’s tempting to see this tale -- like most sports comeback stories -- as a matter of momentum and psychology. Like the 2004 Boston Red Sox, Oracle got into the heads of their opponents by repeatedly dodging defeat. This may have been part of it. But don’t forget that when Oracle was down, the boat went into the repair shed and emerged a totally different craft. We don’t know yet what modifications were made, but you can bet that they were significant and expensive. (The Red Sox, on the other hand, didn't get to refit David Ortiz with new Achilles tendons.)
Even still, New Zealand would probably have won the cup several days ago, were it not for the 40-minute time limit that Ellison imposed on the races. (Imagine, say, the results of the New York City Marathon being decalred invalid because it was an unexpectedly windy day and the race times weren’t fast enough.)
Ellison did this for the purposes of making the cup more TV-friendly. In fact, for Ellison, the 2013 America’s Cup wasn’t about the race, per se. It was about disruptive innovation. It was about turning yachting into a sport for the masses. As Ellison put it, he was going to reinvent the America’s Cup for “the Facebook generation, not the Flintstones generation.”
Toward that end, Ellison added helicopter-mounted cameras and microphones on the boats. He even hired the guy who brought the virtual first-down line to the NFL’s broadcasts and the glowing hockey puck to the NHL’s.
At the end of the day, though, in trying to make the America’s Cup a TV spectacle, Ellison made it anything but. Sure, the boats look cool and go fast, but they are way too expensive to build and maintain for the costs to be offset by advertising. What’s more, the event was supposed to be over days ago but was delayed several times by weather conditions. One day it was too much wind, another day too little for these finicky, high-performance craft. How, exactly, do you create a TV spectacle around an event whose timing you can’t predict? (Even Wimbledon was forced to add a retractable roof!)
Looking at these boats -- marvels of technology, certainly -- it’s hard to believe they even require wind. But I guess Ellison didn’t quite think of everything.
He’ll have another chance in a few years. In the meantime, his America’s Cup will remain a very expensive failure. But that’s OK. As they like to say in Silicon Valley, failure is a prerequisite for success.