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ON SAILING

Big spenders are making waves in Cup

A modest proposal: We reorganize baseball with a $50 million salary cap and pool all players into positions for a blind draw among the 30 teams.

Fair? You bet. But how many Bostonians or New Yorkers would go for this kind of sports socialism? Fact is, who around here wants any such thing as parity in baseball?

Yet every time I hear the oft-repeated complaint about billionaires hijacking the America's Cup and the proposal that, to take extraordinary expense out of the sport, the Cup adopt a one-design class rule -- say, all teams in J-135s or New York 40s or, to reduce crew expense, 110s -- I think about my baseball model.

The billionaires were in town the other night. Members of Alinghi made a presentation at Boston Yacht Club in Marblehead, and acknowledged what we all know so well: The America's Cup is a two-tier sport.

Tier 1 is the billionaires -- Alinghi, Oracle, and Prada, who faced each other at the last Cup in New Zealand, where Alinghi, then the Swiss entry of Ernesto Bertarelli, beat the other two and went on to thump defending champ New Zealand.

"The way it was then," said Brad Butterworth, who spoke to about 120 sailing fans at Boston Yacht Club last Monday, "is whoever won the Louis Vuitton Cup would also win the Cup."

Meaning that a Tier 2 team such as New Zealand -- though champion from 2000 -- didn't have a chance to beat the billionaires.

"That is a problem with the Cup this time around, you'd have to admit," said Butterworth. "The well-funded teams have been organized for quite a while. Prada, Oracle, and us [Alinghi] have been rolling along since last time and are now sailing at a different level."

Of course, Butterworth, the former tactician for New Zealand, and his skipper, Russell Coutts, had a rather spirited parting of the ways with New Zealand and were in the Swiss Alinghi boat that won the 2003 Cup.

That alliance changed again when, last June, Coutts and syndicate founder Bertarelli parted company, with Coutts leaving to, as he said, "try on some new ideas."

"I've been at this for 20 years," Coutts said at the time. "Doing the same thing for that long can get a little stale."

Word is that Coutts is working on developing an entirely new regatta at the elite level, leaving Butterworth to call tactics without his old friend and sailing mate.

"That hasn't been a great situation," Butterworth said of the parting with Coutts. "It's something we definitely have to work through. But I think we're getting to the other end of it now.

"The whole thing just sort of flared up in Newport last June, and it's just starting to settle down now."

Butterworth is not alone. Several countrymen also sail on the Swiss team. "It's been hard, not just for me but for the other New Zealanders who've sailed with [Coutts] in the last three campaigns," Butterworth said. "We'd turn the clock back and make some changes if we could, but that's just the way things are. He's moved on . . . I can see us sailing together in some future time in another setting."

Bertarelli won the Cup in his first attempt, and his first moves on the 2007 defense show how different the next Cup is destined to be. For starters, Valencia, Spain, is the first European port the America's Cup will be sailed in, as well as the first non-English-speaking port.

"It really is a Spanish town," said Butterworth. "It's not like Barcelona or some of the more English-oriented towns in the south. It's full of Spaniards who live there and work there, and that will make it very different from other Cups and very interesting."

The other significant change is the effort among Cup organizers -- led by the defender of record, Alinghi -- to showcase America's Cup sailing in a series of whistle-stop regattas around the world. Starting in Newport -- in an event that was more exhibition than anything else -- and finishing the year with fleet racing at Marseilles and Valencia last month, the Cup teams tried to put their racing before the public in the broadest possible way.

Because of the structure of the Deed of Gift, with the winner taking over the administration of the next Cup season, said Butterworth, the difficulty of both competing in and running the sport always has raised problems, especially in the modern Cup era with mini-corporations competing at the top level. "The problem with the Cup is that when you win it, you sort of take it with you. The actual administration of it falls down, and it's a huge job for the new team to pick it up and run with it. It's difficult and becomes a bit of a poison chalice in many ways.

"It'd be nice if you could come up with a format that everybody's happy with, and the winner would take that format on and maybe make it better or change it slightly. But not a clean sheet of paper . . . Everyone who wins the Cup is always going to do it right and clean it up."

Butterworth was part of the 1995 New Zealand team that became the second non-US team to win the Cup (Australia was the first in 1983), and he was also with the Kiwi team that made the first successful non-US defense in 2000.

In his decade of involvement, he has seen the broad changes that have transformed the Cup from the small club sport it was in Newport from 1958 to the late '70s.

"I think the Cup is maybe a little bit better now," he said. "I think people are starting to realize that for all the controversy always surrounding it -- I mean, the stakes are very high -- in the end, the best sailors and designers always win the Cup. That's the way it should be."

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