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How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love (or at Least Accept) the America's Cup

Why San Franciscans should care about sailing's Super Bowl.

Assuming that the Cup does become the scintillating, Bud Lite–enhanced sporting drama that its backers hope it will be, what would a modern global sailing league look like? Schiller admitted that he’s not a sailing guy per se, but as a former baseball and basketball executive, he knows that a successful league requires two things: “something that leads to a championship” and “local interest.” In other words, it needs a playoff system that makes intuitive sense, along with teams that cities, or countries, or, at the very least, corporate sponsors (à la NASCAR) can get fired up about. “The plan is to identify franchises in the nations,” Schiller said, “and the event would move between venues around the world.” Right now, he added, there is enough interest for 10 America’s Cup franchises, and there are plans to roll out the new league in spring 2014.

The slim frame of the 72s, covered in sponsor logos and manned by sexy aquamen in crash helmets, provides a hint as to the future of the new Fast & Furious–style sailing. Bertelli describes the shift in typically Italian terms: “We have gone from a romantic America’s Cup to an extreme one.” In fact, asked why the Oracle boat has no name—just a number 17 in a circle—Coutts explained, “We wanted it to look like a race car."

The biggest challenge for the proposed league, according to Schiller, is that “in a competitive environment for televised sports, we have to prove that this can draw viewers.” Usually the race is televised on a cable network, but this year, for the first time since 1992, a major network (NBC) is televising the Cup—and Ellison has invested heavily in making the broadcasts work.

This is where the San Francisco Bay gets ready for its close-up. With its treacherous winds and currents, cinematic landscapes, and deep water near the shore, the bay makes an ideal stage for this new brand of reality television. Even Bertelli, Mr. Prada himself, is willing to admit, “The city itself is very beautiful, spectacular with the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and all the remaining sights.” Coutts added that the region’s airports, hotels, and tourist infrastructure make it an ideal location for repeat races over the years. Basically, what Indianapolis or Daytona or Monaco is to car racing, San Francisco could be to boats. “The environment here is perfect,” said Schiller. “San Francisco is a water city.”

But the question remains: Are we a waterfront development city?

“The cool thing about San Francisco is the waterfront, and one of the sad things is the waterfront,” said Spithill. “It is such a crying shame, because it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and you have these iconic bridges, and then you look at these piers, and it’s like, ‘God, how can you do this?’”

How, indeed? San Francisco’s history is littered with failed attempts to build structures on the waterfront. Time after time, overly ambitious plans have been put forth, only to be met by community backlash and increasingly restrictive laws. In 1968, the state turned control of the waterfront, from the Hyde Street Pier all the way to India Basin, over to the city, creating a public trust governed by the Port Commission. Almost immediately, the commission proposed the construction of a 50-story building between the Ferry Building and the Bay Bridge, causing such a panic that the city’s Planning Commission imposed a 40-foot height restriction north of the Ferry Building.

In the ’80s, plans to build condominiums at Pier 45 and a health club at Seawall Lot 321 were deemed not in the public interest, and a plan to allow office use at Piers 1 and 3 was scrapped for not being “water oriented.” A 1990 plan to build a “Sailing Center” and hotel at Piers 24 and 26 prompted voters to pass Proposition H, which created a series of restrictions and requirements with which all developers must comply. Subsequent attempts at development, like a cruise terminal at Piers 30–32 and recreational and retail space at Piers 27–31, were doomed by the combination of costs to retrofit and repair the now-dilapidated piers, limits on the use of the land, and demands for explicit public benefit.

In recent years, though, voters have approved bond measures that have delivered millions to the waterfront. A 2005 state law allows the port to keep some of its tax revenue, which theoretically means that the port is less dependent on extracting concessions from developers and more able to control its own fate by partnering on projects. But even with a kinder, gentler, more moneyed Port Commission, the waterfront remains subject to stringent restrictions. More broadly, it stands as a crucible, sacred ground for local activists, and a source of endless consternation for event organizers.

I asked Coutts, a New Zealander newly educated in San Francisco’s schizophrenic relationship with its shoreline, about his experience getting the Cup approved here. “It has not been easy,” he admitted. “I don’t have any problem with people taking time to look at the environmental impacts and such. However, it seems that certain factions are being obstructionist for the sake of being obstructionist.”

Page four: Do San Franciscans care?

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