It might not seem like it for a while, but this post really is about the America's Cup. Please hang in there...
A few weeks ago Tillerwoman and I were visiting one of my sons and for our entertainment he had his TV playing back-to-back episodes of a TV reality show called Pawn Stars. I have no idea why my Tiller Extension thought we would be interested in a reality show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas but I have to admit it was vaguely addictive. The plot, if you can call it that, is that a series of real people each come into the pawn shop with some treasured object and attempt to negotiate a price to sell it to one of the family members who operate the shop.
The attraction of the show, as far as I could work out, is three-fold...
- what would be the real value of the treasured object?
- how would the seller and buyer handle the negotiation?
- the characters of the three principals in the show.
No wait. This really is about the America's Cup. Stay with me...
The three principal characters in the show are the patriarch of the family Richard Harrison, his son Rick Harrison, who opened the shop with his father in 1988, and Rick's son Corey, who has worked there since childhood.
The middle Harrison, Rick, is a tough negotiator but he will have a smile on his face and a glint in his eye as he sticks it to you.
Rick's son Corey, at least on the episodes I saw, is presented as a bit of a doofus. He bought a second-hand boat without a sea trial or a survey. His father and grandfather abused him severely. "We don't buy boats. They are just holes in the water into which you throw money." Etc. Etc. But it turned out that Corey knew a thing or two about boats and he had picked up a vintage Cris Craft at a good price and they did sell it for a profit, even after paying for minor repairs.
Personally, it was the grandfather, Richard, known on the show as The Old Man, whom I found most interesting. He dresses like some kind of mortician in a Johnny Cash song or a New Jersey mafioso. It's hard to tell whether he is gruff, doddering, demented, or just hamming it up for the cameras.
If you were unfortunate enough to have to negotiate with The Old Man the conversation would go something like this...
The Old Man: What do you have there?
You: It's a 1960s Les Paul custom guitar that was owned by Jimi Hendrix's brother-in-law. Look it's signed by him.
How much do you want for it?
Well, I'm told it's worth at least $25,000. But I'm prepared to sell it for 20 grand.
I'll give you $2,000.
What? Didn't you hear me? It's worth over $25,000. Look, can you give me $15,000?
I'll give you $1,000.
Did you see what just happened? You are negotiating in good faith, trying to reach some middle ground between the two opening positions. But The Old Man is moving away from you. As you lower your offer, he lowers his opening low-ball position even more.
How do you deal with someone like that? Do you say, "OK. I'll take a thousand"? Even though he offered you twice that a minute ago? Or do you say, "Thank you very much, I'll sell it somewhere else"?
Of course, you take the second option. You take your guitar and go to another pawn shop, or even better a specialist guitar shop who will understand guitars and how valuable this one is.
This is where we get to the America's Cup stuff. Honest.
My contention is that the current America's Cup debacle is because the mayor of San Francisco has been acting like The Old Man from Pawn Stars in his negotiations with Larry Ellison and BMW/Oracle about hosting the AC34 in San Francisco.
A few months back, San Francisco made an offer to Larry Ellison. In return for his agreement to host AC34 in their beautiful city by the bay, they were prepared to give Mr. Ellison some long term leases on a few run-down old piers. It seemed like everyone was happy and there were the makings of a deal.
But then the highly influential and esteemed San Francisco Bay blogger O Docker wrote a couple of posts, The Thrill Of Victory and Setting The Record Straight in which he gave a brilliant financial analysis of the real value to Mr. Ellison of these leases, especially the potential for developing the famed Pier 50.
Oops. The mayor and supervisors of San Francisco read O Docker's brilliant financial analysis and had second thoughts. So they lowered their offer. I think the call to Mr. Ellison went something like this...
"Ummm. Larry? Ummm. Hi! You know we didn't really mean it when we said you can have those leases on piers 30-32 and 50. How about we hold the Cup on some other piers further north and you can have a lease on the parking lot for Red's Java House?"
OK. What is the difference between this and The Old Man negotiating strategy in Pawn Stars?
None at all.
So what do you think Larry did?
He said he would go and have a chat with some other folk who might know a bit more about hosting the America's Cup than those crazy dudes in San Francisco. Which is why the big guns from Larry's sailing empire have been in Rhode Island the last couple of weeks, talking to the big guns from Rhode Island about holding AC34 in Newport.
I have no idea how this is going to turn out.
Maybe Larry is just using the threat of taking his boat and going to play in Newport as a way of putting the squeeze on San Francisco to offer him something more valuable than the right to put up some condos on the parking lot for Red's Java House. It could well be. Nothing would surprise me.
But I do think the History Channel or ESPN is missing an opportunity. We all know that the actual America's Cup match is going to be another boring procession of two pontoon boats, just like the last one. So why doesn't someone make a TV reality show about the interesting part of the America's Cup - the negotiations, the legal battles, the interplay between fascinating, eccentric old characters?
It's got to be better than Pawn Stars.