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5 February 2004, 09:57 am
Sausalito Challenge
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America's Cup

San Francisco Bay sailor and advertising ace John Sweeney is drawing up plans to lead a second local challenge for the 2007 America's Cup. If things come together, Sweeney's syndicate will be sponsored by the Sausalito Yacht Club.
His 'low budget' campaign will cost about $40 million. His sailing operations will be based at Treasure Island. He plans to build one new 80-foot racing yacht and to purchase two yachts from the 2003 America's Cup. He hopes to have two boats training on the bay by late summer.

The syndicate's name will reflect its corporate sponsor, which has yet to be determined. It could be Oracle's rival, PeopleSoft, or whoever is willing to ante.

In a twist, Sweeney plans to auction off the exclusive sponsorship rights to his racing syndicate. The bidding would start at $20 million for a corporate-branding opportunity that Sweeney likens to Formula One auto racing. In the meantime, two unnamed Sausalito residents have given his fledgling campaign a $10 million donation.

'It's the dream. I've always been a racing sailor. I've always wanted a chance to put my ideas into the mix,' said Sweeney, a former crewmember for Ellison's Oracle BMW Racing. 'There's a lot of ways to took at the America's Cup, but first it's got to be a business -- and pay back the sponsors. Then you try to get the best sailors and have the best chance of winning it.'

Sweeney hopes to spend less than one-third of the more than $120 million that Ellison's syndicate is likely to pour into its campaign to wrest the silver cup from the Swiss Alinghi team.

'It would be foolish to say that you're going to Valencia to beat Oracle and Alinghi, but you can have a very competitive team,' Sweeney said. 'Basically, there will be a lot of guys racing for the advertising.'

Sweeney, 34, of Tiburon, began sailing when he was 8. He and his business partner, Tina KLEINJAN, created Sailing Billboards Outdoor Media. The ad firm, which used sailing to target high-end consumers, was sold in 2001 for roughly $30 million. Kleinjan, 32, of Sausalito, will run the syndicate's business operations. Sweeney will head the sailing team.

The partners, who own three vintage America's Cup yachts, have organized the Challenge Series of regattas on San Francisco Bay for retired America's Cup boats. Running an America's Cup campaign is a proven money drain, with roughly 55 percent of the budget going into the payroll and $10 million or so to build a swift racing boat.

'In the next three months, we'll either have a sponsor or we won't,' Sweeney said. 'I think the chances are very high that a Bay Area company or an international company that's been involved in sailing will say, 'Hey, I can own this team.'

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