GENEVA — Louis Vuitton, already connected with sailing’s most prestigious event, upped the ante last week by saying it would become principal sponsor of the next America’s Cup, to be held in Valencia, Spain, in 2007.

“How happy I am,” an ebullient Yves Carcelle, president and chief executive of Vuitton, a division of LVMH Moët Louis Vuitton, said in an interview here after announcing the deal at a news conference. “We have been investing 20 years of time, passion and energy to make the cup a global event. To have it come back to Europe is really exciting.

“This time we will be more involved than before, because there will be the Louis Vuitton Cup as usual for the challenger and preliminary series that will carry the name of Louis Vuitton, and we’ll also be involved in the America’s Cup itself.”

Besides being the principal partner, Vuitton watches will become the official timekeeper of the race, which last year generated 3,000 hours of television coverage and 45,000 articles in international publications.

Yachting experts predict the next America’s Cup will become even more of a global event. “It’s the way of the future,” said renowned skipper Chris Dickson, who has taken part in America’s Cups for New Zealand, Japan and the U.S.

An estimated audience of 2.8 billion watched the America’s Cup staged in Auckland, New Zealand, last March.

The 32nd America’s Cup is expected to generate at least $1.5 billion for Valencia and the Spanish economy, and have a multiplier effect in the sales of goods and services of sponsors.

The announcement of the winning city, out of an initial field of about 60, was made last Wednesday at the lakeside President Wilson hotel in an auditorium packed with yachting celebrities, well-heeled sponsors and a fair number of Geneva’s discreet private bankers.

Ernesto Bertarelli, the Swiss billionaire industrialist who headed the Swiss Alinghi team, which won the cup from New Zealand last March, said, “It was very difficult to choose one of the four very good cities.”

But he added: “I hope to sail in each of the four cities in the pre-regattas.” He said the Alinghi team was “highly motivated and quite keen to retain the America’s Cup.”Carcelle said it was too soon to say what products the group had in mind for the Cup series. For the last qualifier races, Vuitton developed a range of sportswear, accessories and a limited-edition watch.

“I’m going to fly back to Paris and work with my team for a few days,” he said. “There will be, as usual, a translation of this big event into Louis Vuitton Cup or America’s Cup products. We signed this morning and we will now think how we will use that in our marketing strategy.”

Carcelle declined to say how much was earmarked for marketing around the race, but pointed out: “The event is definitely different from the last time because there will be series in 2004, 2005, 2006 and the LV Cup in 2007 and the America’s cup in 2007, so we have to organize ourselves to this long period of time.” The 2004 races also coincide with the brand’s 150th anniversary.

Carcelle and the Swiss organizers declined to reveal how much LVMH bid to be picked as the principal sponsor.

Carcelle noted Vuitton has stores in each of the four cities that bid for the cup: Valencia; Marseille, France; Lisbon, and Naples. “Spain is a high potential country for us,” he added.

Worldwide, the group has about 318 stores, of which about a third are located in Europe.

America’s premier yachting personality, skipper Dennis Conner, told reporters sailing is very popular in Europe, but also noted the cup has become “a passion for wealthy individuals.”

He said he’d like to take part in the next cup.“If someone gives me $200 million, I’ll be there,” he said.

Other yachting experts, however, reckon about $50 million is required to take part. There are already some 14 challengers lined up.

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