OPINION: The America's Cup yo-yo effect is back. When the race is on, and the sailing is tight, there's hardly a soul in New Zealand who isn't tacking towards to the nearest TV screen. It's all lucky red socks and hauling spinnakers.
In between regattas, however, it's a rich man's sport full of international sailing mercenaries and odious billionaires, byzantine rules and long legal challenges.
Inevitably these swerves colour the question of taxpayer funding for the Team New Zealand challenge.
The suspicious side is in the ascendancy now. It's been given plenty of oxygen over the past few weeks by the release of the rules for the next America's Cup regatta.
Cup holders Oracle Team USA have engineered a set of regulations that puts them on the windward side of things before sailing even begins. They include a challenger series that will feature the champions (which means extra practice time and no chance of relegation), an allowance for Oracle to build two boats while the challengers get just one, and a failure to give away the race location.
It doesn't help, either, that it's former Team New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts who's been fronting Oracle's public relations.
Team New Zealand's Grant Dalton is downplaying the stacked rules, but of course he has to. If he gets too stuck into the race regulations, then he'll be shooting himself in the hull. No-one will be in the mood to support him, his team will be out and that will be that.
What he's been much more forward about is the need for urgent government funding. Commercial sponsors won't come on board until the venue is confirmed, he says; without an injection of public funds, the syndicate could be "gone by the end of the month".
Scepticism is required here, and that's what the Government has rightly been doling out. Prime Minister John Key says the public interest is waning. Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce has called for private money up front, "so we all know there are committed commercial sponsors" for a challenge.
That's about right. Dalton's comment suggests that some commercial sponsors might turn tail if the cup ends up in a undesirable location. In that case, the Government could be left with serious sunk costs, as well as a sunk challenge. It shouldn't take on such a risk.
Yet it would be miserly and premature to pull all support for the America's Cup just yet. They lost the last one by a whisker. And when that series was announced, as Dalton also points out, Team New Zealand had scant experience with the multihull boats that Oracle demanded they race. In some ways, the challenge is easier now.
Team New Zealand needs to get its sponsors to commit to their funding. If they do that, the Government could pitch in with a modest contribution to keep them going, on top of the $5 million it has already given the syndicate.
After that, the Government should issue Team New Zealand with a simple directive: win the cup. Wouldn't that be clarifying? Let's not throw away all the design work and sailing know-how in one fell swoop, but let's not commit to eternally funding this maritime carnival either. Last chance, last attempt. Win the cup, or the money dries up.
- The Dominion Post