SAN DIEGO — Another battle of billionaires is churning in the America's Cup, and this one could cost sailing's marquee regatta the two strongest challengers, Italy's Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand.
Italian billionaire Patrizio Bertelli threatened to pull Luna Rossa Challenge out of the America's Cup if two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA doesn't follow the rules in deciding whether to downsize the boats to be used in the 2017 regatta.
Additionally, Luna Rossa, which is backed by the fashion house Prada, said the opening event of this year's America's Cup World Series in Sardinia will be in jeopardy if Oracle Team USA doesn't "quickly announce a public clarification" to a proposal to downsize the class of boats to be used in the 2017 regatta in Bermuda. In a cost-cutting measure, organizers want to go from 62-foot catamarans to either souped-up 45-foot cats or a boat that could be up to 52 or 54 feet long.
Oracle Team USA is owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, whose decision to defend the America's Cup in Bermuda rather than in the United States has made it difficult for some teams and the event itself to raise sponsorship money.
In a statement posted on its website, Team Luna Rossa Challenge said it "is distinctly opposed to the proposal ... to change the Class Rule for the 35th America's Cup and therefore the boat that was previously accepted by all challengers on June 5th 2014.
"Luna Rossa does not believe that a sporting event should be disputed in a courtroom and does not intend to initiate a lengthy litigation process that would only bring prejudice to the event. If the principle of unanimity of all challengers required to change the Class Rule were not to be respected Luna Rossa will be obliged to withdraw from the 35th America's Cup."
Later Thursday, Emirates Team New Zealand posted a statement on its Facebook page saying it agrees with Luna Rossa Challenge.
A few hours later, America's Cup Commercial Commissioner Harvey Schiller notified Team New Zealand that a qualifying regatta in early 2017 will not be awarded to Auckland.
While there were a number of reasons, Schiller told The Associated Press the biggest was Team New Zealand "bouncing back and forth on support" for the unprecedented mid-course downsizing.
Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton told the AP he felt that was a negotiating ploy. However, Team New Zealand's government funding is triggered by economic value, including an Auckland regatta.
Asked if that could be the end of the Kiwi team, Dalton said he wants to wait and see how next week plays out.
Organizers said Wednesday that changes are being drafted and teams will be asked to vote early next week.
While the AC62 Class Rule can be changed only with unanimous consent, organizers say they have agreement with teams to amend the protocol to change the class rule with a majority vote.
Dalton said that while the Kiwis support cost reduction, they're "completely in line with Prada" and feel any decision on boat downsizing should be unanimous.
European teams were believed to oppose a regatta in Auckland because of the cost of shipping their boats halfway around the world. It's also believed that America's Cup officials were pressured by Bermuda to keep all the racing in that British territory.
Bermuda outbid San Diego to host the America's Cup by promising a financial package worth up to $77 million.
Dalton has sparred in recent years with Russell Coutts, a fellow Kiwi who is both CEO of Oracle Team USA and director of the America's Cup Event Authority.
Asked about the chance Team New Zealand could be forced to drop out, Coutts said: "We've got everyone's interests to consider, not just one team."
Coutts skippered Team New Zealand to victory in the 1995 and 2000 America's Cups before jumping ship for a bigger paycheck from Alinghi of Switzerland. Coutts then steered Alinghi to a five-race sweep of Team New Zealand in 2003.
It's believed that the Italians and other syndicates have already spent tens of millions of dollars designing 62-foot catamarans.
Bertelli, who is married to Miuccia Prada, is likely to follow through on his threat.
In July 2013, Luna Rossa sat out the opening race of the challenger trials on San Francisco Bay to protest rules changes, leaving organizers with the embarrassing scenario of Team New Zealand sailing around the course alone.
That spat got personal when Coutts called the Italians "a bunch of spoiled rich kids dressed in Prada gear."
It wasn't clear what size boat America's Cup organizers want. Schiller said it was his impression it would be "strictly the enhanced 45s."
However, Coutts said the length hasn't been determined.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.
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