From the shore, it might look like just another sailboat race. Little do you know.
This week's America's Cup World Series on the San Francisco Bay -- followed by next summer's actual America's Cup -- is the most extreme and precarious sports experiment on water. Ever.
"I really believe this is a turning point," said Bruno Troublé, a former America's Cup skipper and now an impresario/spokesman for Louis Vuitton, a major sailing sponsor. "There are a lot of big changes."
The biggest change: For once, sailing is trying to expand its narrow bandwidth of followers into more of a broadband audience.
Or to put the mission more simply: By bringing the world's fastest boats to San Francisco Bay and promoting the America's Cup as a great spectator and television viewing experience, the sport's establishment aims to convince football and baseball fans to also go spinnaker crazy.
My opinion: Good luck with that. Larry Ellison, major-domo of Oracle Corporation and the defending America's Cup champ, is a very rich guy and is basically financing this whole show. But he still might not have enough dough to get Sam of San Leandro as excited about tacking strategy as he is about the Giants' or A's relief pitching.
In popular culture, the America's Cup is perceived as a contest that decides which country's gazillionaires can sail expensive boats better than another country's gazillionaires. Too often, the sport still throws off
This week, for example, I put the question flat-out to Russell Coutts, the CEO of Oracle Racing and a four-time America's Cup winner: Why should regular civilians -- be they casual sports fans or average Bay Area residents -- care about the America's Cup races?
"Why should they care about anything?" Coutts retorted.
Um, see, that's probably not the best answer if you're trying to build a larger audience for your event.
To Coutts' credit, he quickly realized his faux pas and began navigating toward a better answer.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Coutts said. "These are the coolest boats on the planet. And people here don't realize what they've got in the bay."
Coutts noted that purely as eye candy, the racing -- particularly with the 45-foot catamarans for this week's regatta and even more so next summer's mammoth 72-footers -- can be a blast to watch. By Thursday morning, five boats already had capsized and been sent back to the dock for repairs. And the proximity of viewing areas at Marina Green gives spectators a closer-than-usual view of the onboard action as each crew scrambles to wrestle the sails into proper position.
It is also the opinion of Coutts, a New Zealander, that a successful series of America's Cup events could help spawn a new generation of U.S. sailors to rally the country from what has been a semi-slump.
"This could help repopularize the sport here," he said. "It was amazing that the USA did not win a sailing medal at the Olympics. Maybe these events will help stimulate young kids to get excited and involved in sailing."
He could be onto something there. A visit to Marina Green this week is definitely a unique spectating experience. A few thousand curious observers showed up for the first couple of days. Organizers have set it up as sort of a sailing festival. There are food booths, a stage for entertainment and a jumbo television. There is live race commentary with music. When a boat capsizes, the deejay cranks up "Another One Bites The Dust." (This might not be so hilarious if a sailor is seriously hurt in one of the wrecks).
Other pluses: Admission is free unless you want a $25 bleacher seat. The bay air is bracing (some would say biting cold) and watching the catamarans skim across the water and jockeying for the same spots is definitely a "wow" experience.
The minuses: Marina Green is not the easiest place to reach (especially for the 11 out of 12 Bay Area residents who don't live in the city) and it is a long hike to the start-finish line. Also, once you have consumed the eye candy, will you return the next day? Or for all 55 days of racing next summer?
Troublé understands all of those issues. But he is passionate in his desire to overcome them. The television aspect of this weekend's event -- the Sunday finals will be broadcast on NBC -- could prove to be the most important. The visuals should be awesome and could grow the crowds along the waterfront in 2013. And in a nod toward building personalities, the AC World Series skippers are participating in the "Cupcake Wars" reality series this week.
"To make the sailors into rock stars, this will be difficult," said Troublé, with a chuckle. "But even if you don't know sailing, it will look impressive on television. The future of the America's Cup is not rich guys. It's corporate sponsorships. We have Red Bull this year, which should help with the younger group."
It might also help advance the fact that many non-wealthy people do enjoy the sport. The best guess is that there are 50,000 active sailors in Northern California, said John Arndt, associate publisher of Latitude 38, a California sailing magazine. Very few of those 50,000 are millionaires. They choose to sail and buy a boat the way others choose to buy an RV and tour the country. Dennis Conner, the most famous American sailor ever, was from a middle-class family in San Diego.
The skippers do seem to understand what's at stake these next two years. Those 50,000 sailors surely will clamber to watch the boats this summer and next. But will the audience grow beyond that? When the America's Cup finals are raced in September 2013 and are competing with the NFL and college football as well as the baseball pennant races, will anyone outside the sailing cultists show up?
"I'll make you a bet," Coutts said. "By the summer of 2013, that will not be a conversation point. People will look at it in a completely different way."
He didn't name the stakes. So I'll make it beer instead of Champagne. Hope the yacht club folk don't mind.
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-5092.