America's Cup race leaves San Diego a city divided. Corporate sponsors rule the sea, say some fans

As the dubious duel of David (New Zealand) and Goliath (United States) resumes offshore today, the city that is hosting yachtdom's greatest spectacle is a city divided: ``I don't think San Diego welcomed [the America's Cup races]. They were foisted upon them,'' says yachting enthusiast Ian Becker, finishing a plate of hash browns at the waterfront Embassy Suites hotel, moments before Wednesday's first-of-three race.

Mr. Becker's boat would be one of only 1,000 to watch American skipper Dennis Conner breeze easily to an expected victory here on the 40-mile course off Point Loma. A ``spectator fleet'' of 5,000 boats was expected.

``Both sides have been posturing so much in the media that it turned a lot of people off,'' says Vern Griffin, a 25-year resident and editor of a local America's Cup newsletter. As a result, local enthusiasm - as evident in the low show of spectators, media attention (only 750 of an expected 3,000 journalists attended), and external signs such as banners - has been far behind that of this year's Super Bowl, also held here.

``Nobody's really been talking about the race,'' adds Lawrence Berman, a resident of Coronado, across the bay. ``Everyone's taking for granted that Dennis Conner will win. It's an anti-climax.''

It has been the commercialized aspect of this year's race that has soured some residents to the competition. The US boat has corporate sponsors and the New Zealand boat has none, driving an ever bigger wedge of confrontation between essentially different competing styles.

``When I saw Conner's boat hoist its gennaker with a giant Diet Pepsi logo splashed bigger than life, I said, `Oh brother,''' says Pauline Kaplan, a member of the Sun Road Marina, sitting on the deck of the San Diego Yacht Club after the race. ``This year the race has been all about politics and money - nothing but more hype for [races in] 1991.''

Much if not all of the incentive for corporate sponsorship comes from the enormous and rising cost of mounting an America's Cup challenge these days, observers say. As little as eight years ago, a challenge could be mounted for $750,000. Today, the price is closer to $10 million, with Michael Fay, the New Zealand millionaire who mounted the challenge, spending a reported $16 million to $20 million.

Mr. Fay will challenge the American team's use of a catamaran in court if the US team wins the race. If the court rules that the catamaran was illegal, New Zealand will host the next America's cup. And a local study recently showed that much is on the line financially for San Diego in this ruling, if the city loses the right to put on the next race.

A $1.2 billion boon to the local economy is the estimated gain from hosting a multination regatta of 21 foreign boats in 1991, according to an economic study done for the San Diego America's Cup Task Force by CIC Research.

``This economic impact includes additional income to San Diego households estimated at $264 million,'' the study concluded. The study showed that 20 international yachting groups would spend a combined $90 million, and visitors coming to San Diego to watch the races would spend $369 million.

``The induced effect'' - the income and expenditures by San Diego households attributable to America's Cup spending adds $515 million in transactions, the study said - an impact eight times greater than this year's Super Bowl.

In contests that are often decided by seconds, Mr. Conner outdistanced his opponent on Wednesday by a full 18 minutes to win in 4 hours, 53 minutes, 54 seconds. But even if he should win again today, the outcome will still be determined in court to decide if the ``smaller boat'' or catamaran defense is legal.

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