Should taxpayers fund a Team NZ defence of the America's Cup?
My editor raised one eyebrow and fixed me with a steely gaze. "May I ask," he enquired, "whether you are an Australian?"
OPINION: I'd just admitted I wasn't a huge fan of rugby union, which back in the day was tantamount to treason, or at least a sign that your nationalistic sympathies lay elsewhere.
I'm sure we've all grown up a lot since then, so I'm hoping I can admit something else without fear of having my passport revoked: the America's Cup, whether or not it is nearly New Zealand's cup again, bores me rigid.
Any sport that inspired the creation of an entire computer graphics industry just so television viewers could tell which boat was in front is lost on me. And now even the sailing purists have had their sport ruined by the current super-charged ‘Twenty 20' version of the once-venerable regatta, which reduces three-hour contests to little more than 30 minutes.
Not that you can even call it sailing any more - it's more like low-level flying. The technology involved in creating machines that can sail upwind at twice the speed of the actual breeze and that even the support boats can't keep up with removes much of the actual sailing contest, as far as I'm concerned.
I accept, however, that watching these technological marvels fly at barely sub-sonic levels around San Francisco Bay can be mildly diverting. And kicking American butt is always good fun.
But is it worth $36 million of taxpayers' money? How do we justify paying that much to what, to be honest, is essentially a racing syndicate no different from a motorsport team? Particularly one already funded by Emirates, the most profitable airline in the world?
Back in 1995 it was easier to explain. Peter Blake, Russell Coutts, Team NZ and Kiwi pluck and determination, funded on the smell of an oily rag and the sale of plenty of pairs of red socks. We won, and yes it was incredible, and three years later Team NZ successfully defended the cup in Auckland.
But then things went downhill. Sir Peter died, Sir Russell did the dirty and joined up with an Italian billionaire in Swiss syndicate Alinghi and three years later delivered Team NZ a spanking off the coast of Spain, and another trouncing four years after that.
On both occasions the Labour government forked out $36m to fund the challenge, against what was then considerable public opposition. Indeed, National in opposition vigorously opposed the public funding - and even tried to overturn Labour's final bequest before it left office in 2008.
Although a similar poll today may yield a very different result, a Stuff website survey in 2011 found 72 per cent of respondents answered ‘No' when asked whether the government should underwrite Emirates Team NZ's current cup challenge.
We're fair-weather friends, aren't we? And so is National, which is now talking about spending even more taxpayer cash should ETNZ clean up in the current series and bring the cup back to Auckland. How much more Prime Minister John Key won't say yet. But it is likely to be significant, given the cost of high-tech yacht match racing isn't getting any cheaper. On top of that, Key says, it's possible (I'd say highly likely) that Auckland's Viaduct Harbour would need an infrastructure upgrade before New Zealand could host such an event.
Oh, but wait - such funding is an "investment", because these events bring so much international spending and publicity money can't buy, right? Well, I'm sceptical about that. I've seen wild claims that an America's Cup in Auckland would bring in $800 million, which frankly is an estimate not worth the back of the envelope it was calculated on.
We're forever being told public spending on things such as the America's Cup, the Rugby World Cup, or the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films will bring huge dividends to the country but the actual economic benefit is notoriously difficult to measure.
This goes double outside Auckland itself - why should the rest of the country pay to bring a sport that already oozes money to just one city?
I also doubt the hyperbole about how such events "showcase" New Zealand "on the world stage". It would be difficult, I suspect, to pick two events of less interest to the greater population of the planet than rugby or yacht racing.
Even in the host city of the current regatta, the home-town paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, devotes more pages to college football than it does the battle playing out on the Bay.
Of course I want ETNZ to win, although I fear that even if they do the result is open to legal challenge due to the excessively harsh punishment handed down to Oracle by the international jury for supposedly cheating before the racing even began. But I'd like to see our supposedly parsimonious Government being a little more careful with taxpayer cash. And I'd like some independent calculations of the actual benefit to New Zealand before dipping into the public purse.
On the face of it, there are more worthy uses for the millions they will throw at a cup defence than giving it to a sport dominated by the wealthy and the privileged.
Colin Espiner is a Sunday Star-Times columnist
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