Larry Ellison: Make America's Cup about sailing, not money

larry_ellison.gi.top.jpgOracle CEO Larry Ellison holds up the trophy after winning the 33rd America's Cup Regatta, in Valencia, Spain.By Adam Lashinsky, senior editor at large


(Fortune) -- There are many sides to Larry Ellison.

There is the taunting Larry, for instance, who delights in provoking whichever adversary crosses his sights. Then there's Larry the aesthete, a collector of Japanese art and patron to the artisans who crafted his Zenful California home. Less remarked upon is the shrewd Larry, builder of the strategically astute business juggernaut known as Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500).

It is only a bit surprising, then, to see yet another facet of the software mogul on a Saturday morning in late February at San Francisco's City Hall. Behold Larry Ellison, statesman, whose dream is to transform the world's most prestigious sailing race, the America's Cup, into a competition for mere millionaires, rather than billionaires like himself.

Standing beside the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and before former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (whose wife, Charlotte, is the city's head of protocol), a beaming Ellison introduces his BMW Oracle Racing team. The crew is newly arrived from Valencia, Spain, having recaptured a sporting trophy lost to the U.S. for 15 years.

The match in Spain was as notable for its pre-race courtroom battles and astronomically pricey technology as for the acumen of its victorious yachtsmen -- which was considerable. And here is an almost humble Ellison sharing the stage with his sailors, particularly team CEO Russell Coutts, a renowned New Zealander who notched his fourth America's Cup victory, and Jimmy Spithill, the young Aussie who skippered the boat.

Ellison basks in their glory, and only later unveils his radical plan. "We'd like this to not be a matter of who invests the most money in designing their boat but who sails the best," Ellison tells Fortune after the TV crews and dignitaries are gone. Smarts, technology, marketing, planning, and design all should be a part of the mix, he says. "But in the end it's got to come down to: How good is your sailing team? How well do you call the wind? How good are your tactics? How well do you trim?"

This kind of talk is certain to warm the soggy hearts of yacht-racing fans everywhere. Coming, however, from a man who can, and often does, buy whatever he wants, it also seems to stretch credulity.

Ellison's 90-foot trimaran -- officially dubbed USA-17 -- featured the largest rigid sail the world has ever seen, a 150-person organization, and a price tag rumored to be near $400 million, most of which Ellison supplied himself. The best-of-three series against the defending Swiss team, known as Alinghi, came only after months of legal scuffles between Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli, a billionaire pharmaceutical scion.

Yet Ellison seems to mean it. One of his favorite competitions besides the America's Cup is an international circuit in which all entrants sail identical boats, called RC 44s. He wouldn't suggest such a drastic break with tradition for the America's Cup, but he does want to alter the competition's design rules -- a prerogative of the winner -- so that it would take as little as $3 million to mount a campaign. That way national teams that have abandoned America's Cup racing, like Sweden and South Africa, would probably return.

Ellison also envisions promoting regattas featuring America's Cup-class boats in different cities around the world that would lead up to the main competition: "We could do a race in Hong Kong, New Zealand, Italy, France, Newport, San Francisco -- six or seven races, until all of a sudden everything stops for three months and you have the America's Cup."

He's also given plenty of thought to promotion, especially on television. "No sport can be successful without good TV coverage," he says. "The TV coverage of the America's Cup has been dismal in the United States. We can fix that easily."

A sailing buddy of Ellison's is Stan Honey, known in sports and technology circles as the man who invented the yellow first-down line on televised football games. Ellison notes that clever graphics and intelligent commentary can help newbies with even the most basic of questions, like who's currently ahead in a race. "With a little bit of technology, and care and attention, I think we can make this incredibly exciting."

As for the boats, Ellison thinks there's opportunity there too. Breakthrough technology originally snatched the Cup away from the U.S. in 1983 when an Australian team challenged with a revolutionary winged keel. Now Ellison has won it back with the size and scope of BMW Oracle's unique sail.

"I have no problem with clever ideas occasionally moving the America's Cup from one place to another," he says. "That is the America's Cup. What I have a problem with is technology always being the determining factor as opposed to sailing skill. So maybe once every 10 America's Cups someone comes up with something really innovative and wins because of technology. The other nine it's about who sails better."

Presumably Ellison doesn't plan to hold himself to a $3 million budget. Coutts alone earns more than that from whichever rich guy desires him most -- he once sailed for Bertarelli -- and Ellison sounds confident of signing Coutts and Spithill to new contracts. But if Ellison can draw more teams into the race, then inevitably he'll decrease his own chances of defending the treasured Cup. "That's okay," he says. "All we care about is, if we duly lose, that we get a fair chance to win it back next time."

Spoken like the ultimate good sport. Could this be yet another previously undetected dimension of the talented Mr. Ellison?  To top of page

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