Rough Sailing for America’s Cup and Sponsor Louis Vuitton

ImageTwo months before competing catamarans are scheduled to set sail in the San Francisco Bay for the 34th defense of America’s Cup, the event seems to be in deep water.

Oracle Team USA’s Cup title defense, following a 2010 victory that was the first for an American team in nearly 20 years, was pegged as a groundbreaking affair that would generate an estimated $1.4 billion in the host the city of San Francisco.  The opening weekend of the Louis Vuitton Cup, however, shows little promise for the 2013 rendition of sailing’s finest venture.

The Louis Vuitton Cup is a round-robin tournament featuring global competitors vying for the right to sail against the American team for the America’s Cup crown.  Since 1980, between 7 and 13 teams have competed in this preliminary round.  This year’s version, however, has only produced 3 competitors: Italy’s Luna Rossa, Sweden’s Artemis Racing and Emirates Team New Zealand.  Countries such as France and Spain pulled out of the races, most citing lack of funding as the primary cause.

Following a boycott by the Italian team and an Artemis shipwreck, Emirates Team New Zealand raced to the finish in deserted waters twice over the weekend, earning the first two points of the Cup sailing unopposed.  Safe to say, L-V did not fork over $10 million in sponsorship fees for New Zealand to hold open practices on the bay.

After a rough start to the competition, the stylish French retailer and title sponsor is having second thoughts about its initial investment.  Hopefully they kept their receipt, because L-V is reportedly looking to receive a $3 million refund due to the poor international showing.  Contractually, they are eligible to receive a $1 million refund for every team below six in the tournament.  More teams could be on the way out too, leading to an even greater return to Louis Vuitton.

Sponsorship refunds are relatively unheard of, but this year’s America’s Cup may set the precedent for future sponsorship contracts.  Frankly, nobody expected the event to be such an epic flop.  If an event with as much history as America’s Cup can falter, so can others.  Moving forward, the turmoil in the San Francisco Bay will serve as a cautionary tale for prospective sponsors across the board.

Louis Vuitton has been a Cup sponsor for 30 years.  Prior to its sponsorship, the teams competing in the preliminary rounds were forced to divide the cost of the event among themselves.  Title sponsorship of events rarely leads to such a profound direct impact on the competition as in this case.  Louis Vuitton has been a driving force behind the Cup for decades, but their commitment seems to be wavering.  Maybe their long-term presence with the event led America’s Cup to feel comfortable enough to include contractual provisions allowing them to get some of the money they fronted returned to them.  But if they are able to run away from an unsuccessful sponsorship deal with millions of dollars stuffed back into their designer handbags, other companies may look to follow suit.

It remains to be seen if the Louis Vuitton Cup will prove to be a strange gem in sponsorship history or a frontiersman for protected deals in the future.  Either way, a quiet storm is brewing in the city by the bay.

What is your take on the concept of sponsorship refunds? Comment below and give us your thoughts!

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