San Francisco treading water with America's Cup

Billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison's bid to turn America's Cup yacht racing into a money-pumping spectator extravaganza in the picturesque San Francisco Bay has hit stiff headwinds.

Visions of Cup teams and fans fattening city coffers during a "Summer of Racing" orchestrated by the billionaire yachtsman have yielded to hopes of staying above water and riding a tide of publicity into the future.

While San Francisco's mayor remains a Cup booster, the event has been scaled back along with its appeal to donors and the potential for windfalls from taxes, fees or waterfront upgrades.

America's Cup event authority chief executive Stephen Barclay is adamant that the world's premier yacht race remains a win for San Francisco and that organizers have lived up to their part of the bargain.

He says the "foundation stone" upon which San Francisco agreed to bid was that "the city's general fund would not be impacted by hosting the event -- paying for police, fire, street cleaning and all that kind of stuff."

Citing a recent city finance committee estimate that costs versus total revenue from the Cup, including a boost in tax revenue, should "end up a wash," Barclay insists the foundation stone that was laid has been delivered."

Barclay has heard the criticism that the city should be making a profit, but he maintains that the Cup races on the Bay will showcase the beauty of the city, providing a 'long tail' in terms of luring visitors.

Waterfront upgrades that will remain after Cup races end in September will include a new cruise ship terminal that had languished in planning phases before being incorporated into preparations for the event.

The Bay Area Council Economic Institute trimmed heady forecasts of three years ago to predict that the Cup will give a $900 million boost to the city's economy, bring in some 2.5 million visitors and generate 6,500 jobs.

Meanwhile, efforts to raise donations to cover city costs for hosting the Cup lost the wind in their sails after only three teams were fielded to challenge champion Oracle Team USA instead of the 15 originally expected.

As of Thursday, more than 4,000 people had signed an online petition at calling for Ellison to kick in the cash for any fundraising shortfall instead of the city covering the gap.

The petition tells Ellison, the chief executive of Oracle and the world's third richest man, to "put your money where your mouth is."

Ellison's move to boost spectator appeal by fielding sophisticated high-speed AC72 catamarans caused the price of entry to soar at a time when the world economy was sinking, effectively shutting out many aspiring competitors.

The waterborne speedsters will face off on a tight Bay course to provide a race car track-like stage intended to make it a television-friendly event that will capture the interest of general sports fans as well as sailing lovers.

Cup organizers adapted to the reduced number of challengers by adding Red Bull Youth matches in which young sailors race in smaller AC45 catamarans.

Organizers took advantage of the first-ever "in-shore" venue for the Cup to create a 9,000-seat pavilion for concerts starring artists including Sting, Weezer, Train and the San Francisco Symphony.

The pavilion will also be a venue where people can watch for free Cup races broadcast on giant screens. Organizers are augmenting the free viewing spots with premier venues where space comes at a price.

"The America's Cup has always been a festival and we have taken that to the next level by creating an arena out of the shore," Barclay said.

"A lot of people told us we couldn't ticket sailing, and we've proven them wrong."

Tickets are on sale for a ceremony in the pavilion on July 4 to officially launch the Summer of Racing. Most of the money from each $10 ticket will be donated to the Cup's Healthy Ocean Project.

The Cup announced last week that it is refunding tickets for viewing the initial rounds of racing slated to take place from July 5 to August 5 to allow the Swedish team to recover from a tragic training accident.

Artemis Racing CEO Paul Cayard described the challenge ahead for his team as a 'mountain to climb' as it readies to race by the end of July.

The tight-knit yachting community was stunned on May 9 by the death of British sailor Andrew Simpson in the capsizing of Artemis Racing's AC72 catamaran while training on the bay.

Even so, the eyes of the sport's elite remain on the prize, and four teams -- stocked with the world's most accomplished sailors and backed by millions of dollars -- will gather for the start of competition on July 7.

That's the launch date for the Louis Vuitton Cup, in which three would-be challengers -- Sweden's Artemis, Italy's Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand -- battle for the right to duel defender Oracle Team USA in the America's Cup in September.

The spectacular AC72 catamarans -- 72-foot (22-meter) double-hulled technological marvels powered by 130-foot (40-meter) rigid wing sails -- will race against the backdrop of Alcatraz and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

It's all the vision of Ellison, whose triumph as the owner of Oracle Team USA in the 33rd edition in 2010 gave him the right to establish the protocol for this year's regatta.