SAN FRANCISCO — Victory in the America's Cup of 2010 gave Larry Ellison, the tech titan who had spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to capture sailing's ultimate prize, the right to set the rules for this year's regatta.
Ellison, whose Silicon Valley software company, Oracle, has made him the world's fifth-richest man, decided to bring the race home to the postcard-perfect, television-friendly San Francisco Bay, promising a sporting event that would showcase the city and transform its waterfront. But another decision — calling for the design of extremely expensive, sophisticated and fast 72-foot catamarans that would, for the first time in the 162-year-old competition, fly above the water in high winds in a maneuver known as "foiling" — immediately raised worries about cost and safety.
Now, with just weeks left before the start of competition, those worries could imperil the race's success. Only four teams have signed up because of the costs, the smallest contingent in the race's modern history and far fewer than the 15 that organizers had predicted in selling the event to city officials hungry for its economic benefits.
As a result, civic leaders are concerned that fewer contestants will mean less interest and, with fundraising lagging, the city even might be stuck for a significant part of the tab.
Jane Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the city's America's Cup project, said San Francisco would ultimately benefit from the event. But she said fundraising had been made difficult by sailing's lack of popularity in the United States and the sailing community's split over the new boats.
Under longstanding rules, the winner of an America's Cup competition, which is not on any set schedule, is allowed to decide the next competition's location and boat design.
Aaron Peskin, a former member of the city's Board of Supervisors who has started an online campaign to pressure Ellison to personally cover the city's operating costs, offered a different explanation.
"Other well-to-do, philanthropic individuals and organizations aren't really interested in donating to the hobby of the third-richest person in the United States who's down to his last $40 billion," Peskin said.
The more immediate concern is the dearth of contestants. Races to determine which nation will go up against Ellison's defending team are set to begin on July 4, with the final competition starting Sept. 7.
Even before the first race, organizers have begun acknowledging that the design choice for this year's yacht, known as the AC72, had been a poor one.