NASCAR At Sea: How The America's Cup Evolved, And Why It's Good For The Sport

There's no more basketball or hockey on television this weekend. Football's weeks away. There's baseball, if that's your thing, but we're not even at the all-star break. So the weekend will be all about the global sports: soccer, various Olympic trials, and... sailing? Yes, the America's Cup World Series—a new event designed to ensure that the America's Cup loses slightly less money—will air in part on NBC, 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, live from Newport, R.I.

Joshua Brustein explains, in The New York Times:

Two years ago the officials who run the America's Cup made an important decision: they were going to change professional sailing into a sport that was actually fun to watch.

This was a big shift for a sport that has traditionally been indifferent to the idea of an audience. But new revenue was needed to help sailing teams struggling to raise the tens of millions of dollars for building and sailing the boats for the Cup, so the organization decided to chase the broadcast television deals and sponsorships that are the lifeblood of many other sports.

The basic strategy was to add speed and danger to sailing by using winged catamarans, boats that move much faster, but also capsize easily, and holding races close to shore, where wind patterns are less predictable.

Yes. Wow. If you're not versed in sailing jargon: A winged catamaran is less a boat than two giant plastic boat skeletons held together by some rods, with more plastic laid over the rods so that the mast and sailors can reside somewhere. There's no keel, only a couple of wispy daggerboards, and there's a shit-ton of sail area, so the boats can flip in a squall.

Historically, the America's Cup boats resembled the average sloop, if on a dramatically larger scale. (These boats are 45 feet long.) They were single-hulled affairs. Sure, they were sleeker than the sailboats you'd see docked at your local harbor, ornamented with carbon fiber (or whatever was in vogue at the time of the race) everywhere it'd fit, but they weren't crazy mutant speed demons, just big sailboats.

Now? It's NASCAR at sea. It's so fast and risky that the sailors wear helmets. And graphics—designed by the man who invented the NHL's glowing puck and the first-down marker—will fill NBC's broadcast, showing every boat's speed and direction, with rhumb lines and the like overlaid.

Don't let yourself, though, cry over the disappearance of the genteel seaman and his starched championship. The Times article wants to. But the sport's been professional since Dennis Conner's heyday, with its garish sponsorships, oodles of mysterious money, and boats from every nation discreetly crewed by New Zealanders. This weekend, the America's Cup will finally get the vessels it deserves.

America's Cup Updates As It Trawls for Viewers [NY Times]