Tracy Watkins: America's Cup glory, but at what price?

Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling is bringing home the Auld Mug.

Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling is bringing home the Auld Mug.

OPINION: Bermuda probably has a special place in Kiwi hearts after a thrilling America's Cup win, but don't be surprised if the love is not reciprocated.

The tiny nation - population 65,000 - sunk close to $100 million into hosting the Cup and hoped the event would be more than a one-off.

We dashed those hopes. And what goes around could come around.

Sir Peter Blake heads an America's Cup parade in Wellington in 1995.

Sir Peter Blake heads an America's Cup parade in Wellington in 1995.

That it could be a oncer is just one risk of hosting an event like the America's Cup and the hefty price tag that comes with it.

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A nation is transfixed by a yacht race.

A nation is transfixed by a yacht race.

The other is the nature of the Cup event itself. Its long history on the water is almost rivalled by its long history in the court room. And there is an ugly row brewing over the future of the America's Cup.

In the one camp is the event's governing body and the other syndicates - spearheaded by our own Sir Russell Coutts - who want to move to what they see as a more commercially sustainable model of a world series-style regatta, held every two years, and spread around the world. And in the other camp is us.

Headlines overseas have already painted a New Zealand win as jeopardising the future of the race. Sir Russell has suggested the days are over when New Zealand could host the sort of one off events we saw in Auckland in 1999-2000 and 2003.

They bought the cup "home". But will the Government put up money to hold onto Pete Burling and Team NZ for four more years?

They bought the cup "home". But will the Government put up money to hold onto Pete Burling and Team NZ for four more years?

As the Cup winners, New Zealand gets to dictate the terms of the next regatta, of course. But it's not much of an America's Cup race if no-one else turns up. For all the fighting talk about rules of origin and doing it the Kiwi way, Team NZ is now in the position of needing the other syndicates more than they need New Zealand.

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An empty race card, or an event that becomes bogged down in legal challenges, would siphon off the goodwill and economic benefits that make it easier for central and local government to put their hands in their pockets to fund the infrastructure and facilities required to show case New Zealand.

That they will do so is a given - the Government no longer has a minister for the America's Cup, though might have a few contenders for the role of America's Cup supremo, for instance outgoing former foreign minister Murray McCully, or Labour's Trevor Mallard (though he would have to be persuaded into retiring from Parliament for such a role).

There are plenty of other names that could go into the hat. But whatever is decided, a Cup defence will require a serious investment in infrastructure and services and, like the Rugby World Cup, require oversight and resources from central Government and its agencies. The Rugby World Cup means there is now the expertise there to do so.

There is also an expectation that the private sector will stump up - there is a gleam in some peoples' eyes already over the potential $1 billion economic windfall, but they will be told it's no free ride.

But Auckland City will have to stump up too - ministers aren't taking too seriously Phil Goff's opening gambit that Auckland' s pockets are empty.

Goff started pleading poverty even before the champagne flutes were warm, but it's being seen as a negotiating tactic. Goff knows the hefty price tag may be unpalatable when the next rates round is struck down the track. An Auckland cup defence would be starting almost from scratch; the America's Cup village and other infrastructure from the last cup have made way for commercial development.

But Auckland will reap most of the economic windfall from the event and its legacy - better infrastructure for the city.

During the last defence, Auckland a got a world-class waterfront out of the deal, a silk purse from the cow's ear that existed prior to the viaduct's redevelopment.

But any investment will need the public's goodwill (ensuring it is aired on free-to-air TV will be just one of the minefields the Government will have to negotiate to keep that goodwill).

The cost of turning an area like the Tank Farm alone into an America's Cup destination, just one of a number of options, would come with a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars.

And it will be happening against the backdrop of a political argument about a housing crisis, and record immigration. On current settings, the multi-million dollar developments likely to spring up around an America's Cup village may just inflame the affordable housing debate, while those and the infrastructure required will likely need another influx of skilled labour from overseas (though a few years down the track they may be just the boost the economy needs).

While no-one wants to jinx it, meanwhile, there's also the risk of those off-water legal antics associated with the America's Cup, which are to blame for the drop-off in direct Government sponsorship over the years - from tens of millions of dollars to just $5 million to keep key people in place after the shattering San Francisco loss. It just became politically less palatable.

In the post-race euphoria next week, the Government could announce it was putting squillions into a cup defence and probably nobody would begrudge it. It won't face much resistance to writing out a cheque to keep the team intact, like it did after San Francisco, though the Government has not yet been asked. It will probably rule out any other direct sponsorship, however, leaving the job of raising that money to Team NZ.

But the really big bills will come in long after the celebrations are over.

Nobody wants to think that far ahead and the moment and nor should we. Just the feat of winning this year is something to be celebrated. You couldn't read or listen to international coverage without someone marvelling at the sheer innovation and brilliance behind the Kiwi win. A niche audience maybe, but a very wealthy and entrepreneurial niche.

That's gold for the NZ Inc brand. As could be a future cup defence.

 - Stuff


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