Chicago has been under consideration as a host for the 2017 America's Cup regatta, one of the world's premier sporting events, since the winter, said Don Wilson Jr., who is leading Chicago’s host committee.

“This winter, we were contacted by the America’s Cup people,” said Wilson, founder and CEO of DRW Trading Group, an electronic trading firm. “And they said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about having one of the events leading up to the America’s Cup in Chicago.’ So we put together a plan. It was pretty funny. I think they were here in February. There were icebergs floating in the lake.”

At the end of a two-day tour, Wilson said the America’s Cup group told him, "This was awesome. We just talked to Russell (Coutts), and we told him we should have the Cup here."

Coutts is director of the America’s Cup Event Authority, the company established by Larry Ellison, one of the world's wealthiest people with an estimated $51.5 billion fortune, to run the yacht race. Coutts also is the chief executive of Ellison’s Oracle Team USA. Ellison gets to decide the host city of and boat design for the 35th race in 2017. Unlike the Olympics, the more than 160-year-old race does not take place on a regular schedule.

Chicago is competing against San Diego and Bermuda for the three-week event. If Chicago wins, the event likely would be staged along Lake Michigan from mid-June to early July.

Around the time of the February visit to Chicago from race organizers, Wilson said he reached out to the Chicago Sports Commission, an arm of the city’s nonprofit tourism bureau, which has since submitted two rounds of materials to the Event Authority. Aiding the bid is the Chicago Match Race Center, a competitive sailing center Wilson founded, which is located at the north end of Belmont Harbor.

"The America’s Cup has the global awareness that every U.S. city wants," said Meghan Risch, a spokeswoman for Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism bureau, in an e-mail. “The time is right to go after this event.  Don Wilson is aggressively leading the charge to create a host committee to work on securing the funds to host such a high-profile event. No taxpayer dollars will be used to secure/produce this event should Chicago win.”

San Francisco was the site of the most recent America’s Cup competition, in 2013. The event was mired in controversy over boat design and financing. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has said the event cost taxpayers $11.5 million, a deficit Wilson attributed to waterfront investment costs.
Meanwhile, the public relations problems started with Ellison.

He called for a very expensive -- even by multimillionaire standards -- 72-foot boat design, which resulted in just four teams competing, the smallest contingent in modern America’s Cup history. Fewer competitors meant less interest among the public and a far more difficult fundraising pitch, which Lee was compelled to get personally involved.

According to a February analysis by San Francisco budget officials, the host committee for the 2013 race had delivered just $8.67 million of the $32 million it had pledged to raise to cover the city’s cost of hosting the race. And the agreement between the city of San Francisco and race organizers did not require the Event Authority or organizing committee to reimburse that city or hold them accountable if they fell short of their goals.

"Unlike San Francisco, we don’t need a lot of investment in the waterfront," Wilson said. "Our waterfront is already perfect as it is. We converted our lakefront from commercial use to pleasure use decades ago. San Francisco still hasn’t finished that yet."

If the race returned to California, Lee wanted race organizers to pay rent for use of the piers and pay prevailing union wages for construction projects.

Given Choose Chicago’s commitment not to use taxpayer funds, should Chicago land the race, much of the fundraising would fall to Wilson and his host committee, working in conjunction with the tourism bureau.

Wilson is in the process of recruiting prominent Chicago executives to join the committee. Already participating: Hyatt Hotels CEO Mark Hoplamazian; former United Airlines CEO and JP Morgan Midwest Chairman Glenn Tilton; Paragon Pharmaceuticals founder and CEO Jeffrey Aronin; and Lori Healey, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s one-time chief of staff and the president of Chicago’s failed 2016 Olympic bid.

“Don came to me early in the process and said, ‘This is what I’m thinking about and I’m not sure,’” Aronin said. “I helped push him over the line. I said, ‘Listen: You believe in this. I think the city is perfect for this. It’s a great opportunity to showcase our lakefront.’ “

Wilson is so passionate about the yacht racing he once paid $102,600 in a charity auction to observe an America’s Cup semifinal from onboard, serving as the so-called “18th man.”

The 2017 course would see racers sail down the lakefront, likely stretching from Navy Pier to south of the Adler Planetarium.

“It’s almost like the Burnham Plan envisioned this style of racing in Chicago,” Wilson said, referring to the 1909 Plan of Chicago, which reclaimed the lakefront for the public. But, he later added, the event authority would not “sign on here unless they have a high degree of confidence that the corporate enthusiasm is there.”

Ellison has made crucial adjustments to the boat design, reducing it from 72 feet to 62 feet, which Wilson expects will grow the field and ease fundraising pressures.

Sixty-two feet is “a little bit more manageable from a cost perspective,” Wilson said. “But the nice thing about having these big Catamarans is they can sail in 4 knots of wind (about 4.6 mph). So there’s a wide wind range. In 4 knots of wind, we would not be starting a race at the Chicago Match Race Center, whereas these guys (in 62-foot boats) could.”

Wilson began sailing as a teenager in Switzerland and moved back to the United States to attend the University of Chicago.

He said he will not sail in the race, which requires significant financial resources and time. In addition to being among the best sailors in his discipline of match racing, Wilson runs a derivatives trading firm and is a prominent real estate developer, having bought more than 10 properties on the brink of foreclosure at the height of the real estate downturn, including the old Esquire Theater on Oak Street.

Wilson and his company, DRW Investments, are facing a civil lawsuit from the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission, alleging he unlawfully manipulated the price of a three-month futures contract, which allowed him to reap at least $20 million. Prior to the November filing, Wilson and DRW preemptively sued the regulator, arguing they did nothing illegal.

The deadline to select a host for the regatta is Dec. 9, but Wilson said he hopes to have an answer by September.

"If you travel around the world and ask people, ‘Where’s Chicago?’ Most people would respond, ‘It’s in the middle of the U.S.,’" Wilson said. "Well, is it on the water? Surely not. It’s gotta be landlocked. A lot of people around the world don’t know about this massive, amazing lake that Chicago is on. ... The television footage that will be broadcast all around the world will highlight the best part of Chicago, which is the lakefront."

mmharris@tribune.com | bschuster@tribune.com