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What's The Deal With The America's Cup? An Explainer

Don't be ashamed if the America's Cup, just hours away from completion, is only now popping up on your radar. This has been the longest, strangest, most controversial edition in the event's 162-year history. Here are answers to your most pressing questions so you can watch the final race like a pro.

What is the America's Cup?

It's actually the name of the trophy, which was first handed out in 1851 and is the world's oldest international sporting trophy. But colloquially, it's the name of the race currently being contested in San Francisco between the world's two best sailing yacht teams.


Who's in it?

The defending champion is Oracle Team USA, owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison. The challenger is Emirates Team New Zealand, after beating out teams from Italy and Sweden in this summer's Louis Vuitton Cup.

Why is everyone talking about it?

This was shaping up to be one of the most controversial Cups in history for a myriad of reasons, which we'll get to. But the big story is the unprecedented comeback by the American team. It's a best-of-17 series, and the New Zealand team jumped out to an early lead of six to negative one. As recently as a week ago, the Kiwis were up 8-1. But after winning seven straight races, the Americans have forced an 8-8 tie, with a winner-take-all match to be contested later today.

Illustration for article titled Whats The Deal With The Americas Cup? An Explainer

Back up. "Six to negative one?"

The Americans were docked two points for using illegal weights on their yacht during events last year. The weights amounted to about five pounds extra on a boat that weighs a ton-and-a-half, but such is the fine calibration of these machines. So the Oracle Team came into the America's Cup actually needing to win 11 races before New Zealand won nine.


How have the Americans made their comeback?

British Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie was promoted to tactician when the score was four to negative one. (It must be noted that the crews are international, so talk of "American" and "New Zealand" teams are just shorthand.) A few races later, Oracle made changes to its boat and its techniques, most notably its method of tacking. This has significantly increased its speed sailing into the wind. Since those changes, Oracle has won nine of 11 races.


So who "deserves" to win?

That depends on your perspective. Without the two-point penalty, the Americans would have locked up the Cup on Monday. But the weather has tended to shaft the Kiwis—the New Zealand team was leading three separate races that were called off or nullified by winds.

Illustration for article titled Whats The Deal With The Americas Cup? An Explainer

So what about those pre-race controversies?

The America's Cup refers to its competitors as "defender," and "challenger," and those aren't just semantics. When you win the Cup, you pretty much get to set the rules for the next race. Larry Ellison spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win the Cup and bring the event to San Francisco, and after two failed attempts, beat the incumbent Swiss team in 2010.


So the race came to San Francisco, with the city shelling out $20 million on a promise of private reimbursement. The city's still in the red, and many residents aren't happy.

What else?

In addition to the venue, Ellison got to choose the design of the yachts. Enter the AC72, a twin-hulled catamaran unlike anything the America's Cup has ever seen. These boats freaking fly above the surface of the water:

Entirely sail-powered, these boats are capable of traveling more than twice the speed of the wind itself. They've been clocked above 50 mph.


They're also so expensive to build, all but four teams dropped out of the running for this year's Cup. Not that yachting has ever been inclusive, but Larry Ellison's vision of the America's Cup is one where only a select few can afford to compete.

But the AC72s look cool, right?

They look awesome.

But they're more prone to accidents. Last fall, the Oracle yacht overturned, causing severe damage. In May, Andrew Simpson, a British sailor on the Swedish team, died when his yacht capsized during a practice run and trapped him underwater for more than 10 minutes.


Is this even the America's Cup anymore?

Technologies have advanced throughout the 162 years of the competition, but never with such a drastic leap as those under Ellison's reign. In addition to the boat itself, he envisioned a new sort of event, one where shorebound spectators could easily watch the goings-on. As a result of the races being close to shore, the segments are shorter. Whereas the America's Cup had never before been more than a best-of-nine, this has been the longest event in history, requiring 19 races spanning 19 days.


Some have said Ellison "ruined" the event. Katie Baker's excellent breakdown makes the case that the spirit of the America's Cup has always been about the obsessive sportsman pushing the limits of what a yacht can do.

When do we find out who wins?

The climactic and final race will be held this afternoon, beginning at 4:15 p.m. EDT, weather permitting. It will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network.


Why is there an apostrophe in "America's Cup?"

Best question. It's named after the schooner America, which won the inaugural race.

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