Alinghi, Emirates providing excitement, but who's watching?

VALENCIA, Spain -- For the third time in the 156-year history of the America's Cup, the score is tied at 2. At this point, Switzerland's defending champion Alinghi and Emirates Team New Zealand have had four great races that either boat could have won.

Alinghi seems to have the faster boat when the wind blows over 11 mph. But the highly motivated Kiwi crew is on a mission to erase the 5-0 sweep they suffered in their home waters off Auckland in 2003, but winning will be a tough task for the team from Down Under.

After Race 4, New Zealand protested Alinghi for violating the procedure on how the mainsail is lowered. The international jury dismissed the protest after a five-hour hearing Thursday. It was an unnecessary distraction to what has otherwise been a good contest. It makes one wonder if it was an act of desperation.

The most refreshing aspect of this America's Cup is sailing skill is making the difference, not technological advances. The third race featured four lead changes in one of the most exciting contests in Cup history.

In 1920 and 1934, the other years when the Cup was tied after four flights, the New York Yacht Club boats found a way to win. But while there are no United States boats sailing in this Cup match, there is a lot of American influence out on the race course. Alinghi features Ed Baird from St. Petersburg, Fla., steering the boat. There are two other Americans on board the Swiss entry.

Baird has some big shoes to fill. New Zealand ace Russell Coutts previously steered the boat, but he left the team in 2004 after a dispute with team owner Ernesto Bertarelli. Coutts was undefeated in the last three Cup matches between 1995 and 2003.

It has been tougher this time for Alinghi. They have lost two races. Baird has done a good job, so far. The normally calm Coutts was seen getting upset in the second flight, but tactician (and skipper) Brad Butterworth quickly calmed Baird down. Baird's job is to steer fast and not worry about tactics. His toughest assignment is steering the start. Butterworth has told Baird to play it safe and not get into a protest situation against New Zealand. So far so good as Alinghi has gotten out of the gate cleanly. New Zealand's helmsman Dean Barker will try hard to draw a penalty on Alinghi, particularly if the wind gets stronger.

Over on the New Zealand boat, two Americans are playing prominent roles. Terry Hutchinson, 39, from Annapolis, Md., is serving as tactician and was undeclared MVP for making many brilliant calls in the Louis Vuitton challenger trials. We likely will see him skippering a Cup boat in the future, hopefully an American boat. The other American sailing with the Kiwis is Kevin Hall, who represented the United States at the 2004 Olympics in the Finn class and serves as navigator for New Zealand.

One of the key factors in winning the America's Cup is matching the design and measurement configuration to the anticipated wind conditions. Alinghi is clearly geared up for more wind. Historically, the breeze here in Valencia fills in at 14-17 mph; but so far, the wind during this match has ranged only between 6.5 and 13 mph. This has helped New Zealand stay in the game. During the first race, when the wind was the strongest, Alinghi sailed much closer to the wind. This is usually a sign of more stability.

Under the rules you are allowed one major change and one minor alteration during the match. New Zealand went for it after the first race, replacing their short keel bulb with a longer one to add stability. The fact that they won the next two races validates that decision, but they are out of major cards to play. So far, Alinghi has made no changes to their configuration. If the wind starts blowing hard, New Zealand is going to have a tough time keeping up. As of Thursday, the weather forecast is for more light wind. Could the wind gods be from New Zealand?

I have witnessed some or all of the last 14 America's Cup races dating back to 1962. This edition features the smallest spectator fleet that I can remember. In Auckland, there were easily 1,000 vessels, both big and small, on the water. For Races 2, 3 and 4 in Valencia, there were under 300. The organizing authority, America's Cup Management, has constructed a vast race village for visitors, but the place has been empty during the past two days.

Why the lack of interest?

When New Zealand leaves the harbor, its boats proudly fly large New Zealand flags. The fans on the shoreline cheer loudly. When Alinghi leaves the dock, it flies a string of corporate sponsor flags. Apparently, no one feels like cheering for a bank. When Alinghi passes the waterfront, all you hear is silence. Alinghi includes sailors from Switzerland, Spain, USA, New Zealand, Italy, Canada and Australia. In contrast, New Zealand has 14 Kiwis, two Americans and one Australian.

Frankly, the system here is all wrong. The original Deed of Gift written for the America's Cup called for "perpetually a challenge cup for friendly competition between foreign countries." Sailors should represent their own countries. Baird, Hutchinson, Hall and the other American crews should be sailing for the USA. If the America's Cup wants to become relevant again, the nationality requirement, for sailors, designers and builders, needs to be reinstated.

New Zealand's head man, Grant Dalton, said before the match that if they won, the Kiwis would look at returning the Cup to its philosophical roots. We endorse Dalton.

Gary Jobson is a sailing analyst for ESPN. He is a former collegiate sailor and was a tactician for the 1977 America's Cup-winning yacht Courageous.