Hardly Strictly: The Anti-America's Cup
|This ain't boat racin'...|
But not all huge free spectacles are created equally. And, as folks who don't live in this city are fond of saying, "freedom isn't free."
So, it's worth contrasting the just-concluded Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival and the not quite as just-concluded America's Cup.
Both wrested away the city to cater to the whims of charismatic billionaires. But that's where the similarity ends. Hardly Strictly's charismatic billionaire took it upon himself to pay for the whole thing, even from the grave. The America's Cup, meanwhile, may still cost the city millions, even after an oft-farcical fund-raising campaign and dubious claims of millions of free-spending visitors streaming into San Francisco.
See Also: Hardly Strictly Surprises
There's Only One America's Cup Winner. There are Many Losers.
You didn't have a farcical fund-raising drive with Hardly Strictly because founder and banjo-playing billionaire Warren Hellman paid for the whole thing. Repeatedly. And he endowed the festival to keep running, sans city largesse, for 15 years after his death.
So, an estimated 750,000 people flooded into the city over the weekend to watch top-flight performers -- for free. What's more, it works both ways: Many of these performers are insanely talented, but don't play the sort of music that three-quarters of a million people might normally make it a priority to see. Provided you aren't trying to catch a No. 71 bus, it's a win-win.
|And this ain't Emmylou Harris...|
Which brings us to the America's Cup. (We recently wrote a cover story wrap-up of this three-year boating odyssey; please feel free to check it out).
Yachting billionaire Larry Ellison is also a complicated man. But nobody is lining up to call him a mensch.
Using organizers' attendance numbers, perhaps 1 million people took in the races between July 4 and late September. That's a fair number of people, especially if grouped in two piles -- but it's not that much higher than the crowd that flooded in to see bluegrass in just one weekend.
Also, trusting America's Cup organizers with their numbers is a move about as advisable as agreeing to play cards with a man who has the same last name as a city. The promised $1.4 billion windfall generated by 15 or more free-spending yacht syndicates devolved into however much the organizers and their cheerleaders can claim emanated from just four boat teams.
The city's $20 million to $22 million in incurred costs -- labor, transit, etc. -- will not be met by the America's Cup Organizing Committee's paltry efforts. What's more, those private fund-raisers were forced to take out a loan from the Cup organizers -- which they're on the hook to pay back before they remunerate the city. They also required the mayor to come in and start asking businesses and individuals to pony up -- which is a dicey situation that, at the very best, is not a good look.
You're not going to believe this, but even very wealthy people didn't enjoy being hit up by fund-raisers passing the hat to make the city whole after hosting a billionaire's party. What's more, if not for the unilateral actions of Team Ellison, the city could well be in hock to the billionaire and his heirs for massive swaths of the waterfront -- well into the 22nd century.
Visitor-generated taxes originally promised as a happy surplus funding the city's myriad needs have been repurposed into required funds to offset the costs of a yacht race.
Like Darth Vader, they have altered the deal. Pray they don't alter it any further.
(Also, it warrants mentioning that the America's Cup concert series, far from featuring artists of Hardly Strictly caliber, foisted acts like Jonas Brothers and Train -- Train -- upon the city).
Those objecting to stoner- and stoner effluvia-laden public transit or the ignominy of Steve Martin plucking a banjo too damn loudly within earshot are dreading next year's Hardly Strictly. But the city's bean-counters and politicos are not. Damn near 1 million people will come here, spend money, and have a great time.
It's paid for.
With the America's Cup, however, no such glow exists. Bare-knuckled negotiations reminiscent of those in 2010 are likely already under way. If so, it's also quite likely that the professional sharks working for Team Ellison are, once again, eating the city's lunch.
And that lunch isn't free.