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Amid stormy seas, Burnham calls for America's Cup to be run by independent commission

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SAN DIEGO — It's a quaint notion in the archaic America's Cup, even if stands little to no chance of ever coming to be.

Malin Burnham, a San Diego native who is a long-time sailing, civic and business leader, wants the America's Cup to be run by an independent organization, putting sailing's marquee regatta on similar footing as mainstream sports.

Burnham first made his pitch privately in 2013 in a letter to Larry Ellison, the software billionaire who owns two-time America's Cup champion Oracle Team USA.

Ellison didn't respond.

Burnham went public after the American tycoon chose the tax haven of Bermuda, a British territory, over San Diego to host the 2017 America's Cup.

"I'm frustrated. I absolutely know in my heart and my mind what needs to be done and I'd like to get people rallied around that issue and attempt to move forward in a very cooperative, collaborative way," Burnham said. "I'm not here to tell Larry Ellison or Team Oracle how to run their own operation, but I'm not bashful to say it's past time to change the future management of the America's Cup."

Burnham was chairman of Dennis Conner's winning effort in 1987 and also chairman of the San Diego Yacht Club's defense in 1988 and 1992. He's quick to take his share of the blame for one of the ugliest chapters in the regatta's 163-year history. After Conner won back the America's Cup from Australia in 1987, organizers took too long deciding whether they'd defend in San Diego or Hawaii.

That allowed New Zealand merchant banker Michael Fay to issue a rogue challenge. The 1988 America's Cup was an embarrassing mismatch, with Conner sailing a catamaran to a two-race sweep of Fay's plodding sloop, a victory ultimately upheld after a long court case.

Little has changed since then.

The America's Cup winner picks the venue and sets certain conditions for the next regatta while negotiating rules with the challengers.

Ellison didn't respond to a request for comment. Russell Coutts, who has consolidated his power into an almost de facto commissioner's role, declined comment.

Already chief executive officer of Oracle Team USA, Coutts took over as director of the America's Cup Event Authority after Oracle's thrilling comeback on San Francisco Bay to win the 2013 regatta. Coutts and Ellison hold two of three Oracle-controlled spots on the Golden Gate Yacht Club's America's Cup committee.

On Tuesday, Coutts will officially announce the choice of Bermuda, culminating a yearlong search for a new venue after he failed to get favorable terms from San Francisco. It'll be the first time an American defender sails the races in foreign waters.

"What happens is that each new event is kind of a popup event where you have new people in management, who in many cases have never done it before," Burnham said. "There's no continuity, there's no quality control, and you are susceptible to having the kind of outcomes as we're now experiencing. It doesn't make any sense to manage an event as important as the America's Cup like we've been managing it. It's time to change."

Gary Jobson, an America's Cup Hall of Fame member, sailing official and broadcaster, also has called for the America's Cup to be run like mainstream sports leagues.

There are two major blockades in a sport often beset by controversy.

The America's Cup golden rule has always been that he who has the gold, makes the rules. Ellison likely doesn't want to cede control after spending an estimated $500 million during the last 12 years to win and then defend the oldest trophy in international sports. He thinks Coutts is the only person who can help him keep the Cup. Coutts has had a hand in winning the America's Cup in five of the six regattas since 1995, for three different countries.

Then there's the Deed of Gift, the 19th-century document that governs the America's Cup.

New York lawyer and competitive sailor Cory E. Friedman, who has written about the legal aspects of the Cup, said that under the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law of New York, the court's powers to alter a trust are extremely limited and can only be used where the terms of the trust cannot be complied with.

"In this case the terms of the Deed of Gift can and are being complied with," Friedman said. "Racing for the Cup continues. A lot of people are upset with the way the event is run, but just because people are upset with the way the event is run, doesn't mean the court can change the Deed of Gift.

"Obviously the remedy is if you don't like it, buy your own trophy and set up your own event. While I have the greatest respect for Malin Burnham and his contributions to sailing, that is what the law is."

Some in sailing think Coutts and Ellison are putting commercial interests ahead of competition.

"The America's Cup should continue to be one of the world's premier sporting events, and nothing else," Burnham said.

At the very least, it could be debated over pints in waterfront pubs for another 163 years.


Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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