Boston’s next big spectator sport

Software billionaire Larry Ellison and his Oracle Team USA pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in sports history this fall, rallying from an 1-to-8 deficit to take eight straight races and win the best-of-17 America’s Cup series. It was made especially memorable by the picturesque setting in San Francisco Bay, lined with an estimated 1 million spectators. That raises an intriguing question: Could Boston ever host an America’s Cup race?

Probably not. Boston Harbor isn’t big enough for a race where 72-foot-long and 48-foot-wide catamarans virtually fly at up to 50 miles per hour. San Francisco Bay is 488 square miles, with broad expanses of open water, while Boston Harbor is merely 50 square miles, peppered with islands. But there are still valuable lessons for Boston in San Francisco’s America’s Cup triumph, which reportedly produced a greater economic impact than the $480 million of the last Super Bowl in New Orleans.

The America’s Cup is a reminder of Boston’s past success and future potential for shoreline nautical events. Tall Ships visits over the last two decades have drawn between 3 million and 8 million people. Smaller yacht-racing events promoted by Fan Pier developer Joe Fallon have also done well. The 2009 Volvo Ocean Race reportedly drew 135,000 visitors to the docks, and the 2011 Extreme Sailing Series attracted 55,000.


While the America’s Cup may be impractical, top sailors such as former Cup skipper and Boston University All-American Kenny Read says Boston is ripe for all other forms of spectator-friendly racing. “I’m shocked that Boston doesn’t have more races,” Read said by phone from St. Tropez, where he was participating in a regatta. “With its marine heritage, it’s hard to see how racing could not become an important part of the economy.” Boston’s historically cautious approach to major civic events makes sense when considering enormous undertakings like hosting the Olympics. But more racing along the waterfront would be sufficiently self-contained to dispel concerns about neighborhoods being overrun by outsiders, or exorbitant security bills. The America’s Cup may never come here, but there are many other cups available for Boston.