SAN DIEGO — The evidence is as obvious as the red on Dennis Conner's face: Marlboro. Pepsi. Merrill Lynch.
Corporate America has become so visible in its support of the America's Cup, critics charge, that it threatens to become--if it hasn't already--Corporate America's Cup.
Skipper Conner, Cup defender on Stars & Stripes, has been accused by New Zealand challengers of everything from poor sportsmanship to crass commercialism. But the Kiwis have backers, too--Hewlett Packard and Air New Zealand.
Even Frank Snyder, commodore of the New York Yacht Club said Thursday that, like it or not, Cup commercialism is here to stay.
Snyder said he wished that the sport could have remained forever amateur, free of Diet Pepsi sails and Marlboro compounds. But he conceded that even his club has given in. It needs the money, or thinks it does.
"The world is changing," Snyder said. "I have to admit that we at the New York Yacht Club had something to do with introducing commercialism. We're not completely blameless. I guess the answer is, yes, it would be very good if we could return to the way the sport once was. But, apparently, we cannot."
Each of the current major backers--Marlboro, Pepsi-Cola and Merrill Lynch--paid $2.5 million to the Sail America Foundation, which sponsors the event for the San Diego Yacht Club, keeper of the Cup.
Why do corporations choose to sponsor, and at what point do they intrude on the sport itself?
Cathy Leiber is director of event promotions for Philip Morris USA, which markets Marlboro cigarettes. Leiber calls Marlboro "the No. 1 consumer product in the world."
"This is all about America," she said, surrounded by the red tablecloths and red ashtrays of the Marlboro compound. "This is everything from motherhood to apple pie, and in between.
"Let's face it, Dennis Conner is the modern-day cowboy. He's man against the elements. He's macho, independent, strong--the things Marlboro wants a man to be. He's a proven winner."
Leiber said that Conner met with corporate heads of each of "the big three" before America's Cup XXVII and negotiated "an agreement for signage."
In other words, he agreed to display advertising of each corporation at some point during the racing.
In Wednesday's first event, he used a small sail bearing the brightly colored logo of Diet Pepsi. Leiber said that Pepsi insisted on having one day to itself. She said that Marlboro and Merrill Lynch hoped to show signage on "the winning day," which each felt would be today. A spokeswoman for Merrill Lynch, who asked not to be quoted by name, confirmed that Marlboro and her company would share advertising on the hard rig, or vertical airfoil wing, during today's race.
She said that "symbolism is everything to Merrill Lynch," as is "flag-waving, patriotism, nationalism. . . . You bet. Merrill Lynch is still bullish on America. Keeping the Cup in America is something we care about--deeply. Why let a foreigner take it away? Merrill Lynch wants to be associated with that image of defender, protector, and really, at any cost."
Marlboro's Leiber said that, had her company known beforehand of Michael Fay's challenge, its role would have been reconsidered. What it really wanted to sponsor was the 1991 competition. The current event came "from out of nowhere."
But even this event "affords tremendous on-site visibility," she said.