Skipper James Spithill kisses the America’s Cup with members of the Oracle Team USA after winning the overall title of the 34th America’s Cup yacht sailing race over Emirates Team New Zealand in San Francisco on September 25, 2013. (REUTERS: Robert Galbraith)
SAN FRANCISCO — For Larry Ellison, the only thing better than winning the America’s Cup is winning it against all odds.
Ellison’s Oracle Team USA was within an inch of losing the world’s oldest international sporting trophy to Emirates Team New Zealand just a week ago, only to come back on Thursday with the eighth straight race it needed to retain the Cup.
The epic battle over the past few days has been a major vindication of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s much-maligned vision of how to modernize the competition.
For months ahead of September’s 34th America’s Cup finals, Ellison, known for his brash personality and aggressive business tactics, weathered near-constant criticism over the cost, complexity and potential dangers of the 72-foot catamarans he chose for the event.
Only three teams ultimately challenged Oracle, and a British sailor was killed when the Swedish team’s AC72 broke apart and capsized in May.
“There was a lot of criticism about these boats,” Ellison told reporters on Thursday. “I thought that rather than me personally responding, it would be up to the guys ultimately to show what these boats are like on the water. Let the regatta get started and let the people judge.”
And spectators ultimately ruled in Ellison’s favor, partly because he brought the regatta, historically held miles out to sea, into San Francisco Bay where strolling tourists and die-hard sailing aficionados could watch the races up close.
“This regatta has changed sailing forever,” he beamed at a news conference, flanked by Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill and the 162-year-old trophy.
Sailing has been in Ellison’s blood for about as long as Oracle has.
When he moved in the 1960s from Chicago to northern California, where he would eventually launch Oracle Corp , the future tycoon lived on a modest sailboat moored in Berkeley Marina until he ran out of money and had to sell it.
In 1998, Ellison was aboard his maxi yacht Sayonara when its won the 630-nautical mile (724 mile) Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, which turned tragic when a storm killed six people and destroyed several boats.
He brought this year’s regatta to San Francisco after his team in 2010 beat Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli’s Alinghi in a bitter America’s Cup battle fought as much by Ellison’s lawyers as by his sailors.
Oracle Team USA’s determination against all odds is also a fitting metaphor for challenges that four-decade-old Oracle now faces against a sea of smaller, aggressive technology rivals.
Ellison’s sailing team has been a convenient marketing tool for Oracle for years, but the style in which it won this year’s Cup - excelling when the chips were down - now gives him a powerful image to convey to shareholders worried that the No. 3 software company is in danger of losing its lead to younger competitors.
“Its historic comeback against the odds in this race speaks to the character of both Larry and his company. This sends an important message to customers that Larry and Oracle never give up,” said FBR Capital Markets analyst Daniel Ives.
While Ellison watched his team from a speedboat this week, Oracle has been holding its annual customer conference at a nearby San Francisco convention center, with over 60,000 people registered for the event. He even skipped his keynote speech when it conflicted with a race.
But Oracle kept the regatta front and center at the event, making attendees acutely aware of the crew’s progress on the water by piping TV commentary into lounges and leading cheers to support the team.
Thursday’s victory entitles Ellison and his team to again change the rules and venue for the next Cup, should they choose.
Emirates Team New Zealand spent about $100 million on its failed America’s Cup campaign, and while Ellison refused to comment on suggestions he spent much more than that, he agreed that costs must be brought down in order to attract more challengers to future regattas.
“It’s no secret these boats are expensive. We’d like to have more countries competing next time, so we’re going to have to figure out how to accomplish both - getting more countries competing while keeping it spectacular.”