Claire Trevett: Will the Government fight to keep America’s Cup in NZ at any price?

OPINION:

It was a short-lived celebration, just long enough for Finance Minister Grant Robertson to magnanimously praise a losing Australian, Jimmy Spithill, before the clock started ticking down the three-month period Team NZ must take to negotiate with the Government before making decisions about the Cup’s future.

Emirates Team NZ chief executive Grant Dalton was not the helmsman, but he can certainly play the brinksman.

Even before the Cup was won there were leaks that Team NZ management was taking soundings from other host countries, and of the proposal for a two-boat contest next year against challenger Ineos UK, in the Isle of Wight.

The day after the Government plumped up with $5 million to help hold Team NZ together in the short term, the word came from inside the team that $5m was small change, and a figure more like $50 million was needed to keep the key designers and sailors as other syndicates shopped.

The prospect the next Cup could be taken overseas has effectively put Team NZ in the position of being able to hold the Government to ransom if the Government decides it wants to fight to keep the America’s Cup here.

The most important word there is “if”.

The Government has been playing its own reverse-brinksmanship.

It may have concerned Team NZ that not a single Government minister bothered to turn up to the last day of racing, or the award afterwards.

It has shown little appetite for associating itself with the event by appearing alongside the team.

It is understood Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Team NZ yesterday to congratulate them – but that visit was done on the quiet, without the media knowing.

Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash has also already warned the pockets are shallower this time, saying on Thursday that “economic reality” might mean the Government did not have the cash to be able to hold onto the hosting rights.

Whether that was a bluff is not yet known.

The Government considers its $136m funding was sufficient for two America Cup events – the infrastructure provided should mean little more is required for a second event.

Two components are still in play: funding for hosting and running the event (and to stop it going off-shore), and funding for Team NZ to defend it.

Funding Team NZ is an area the Government is reluctant to get into. It does not want to end up being a major sponsor by default. That is because it sees a dangerous precedent: would other sports teams losing sponsors then also expect a Government bail-out?

But governments in the past have funded Team NZ directly – and the call for that has already started over fears the current sponsors, especially Emirates, might pull out because of the squeeze of Covid-19.

Politically, just as Covid-19 increases the need for Government funding for the defence, it also makes it harder for the Government to justify spending it.

The perennial(and simplistic) calls about why the money is not going on housing or poverty, or struggling businesses, are much louder in the Covid-19 era.

The responses of the political masters in the past have been to point to warm, fuzzy benefits such as national pride and international exposure – as well as the promotion of New Zealand technology and design.

Robertson yesterday made it clear the economic benefits would be more in play this time. He also noted the only country that paid much attention this time was Italy.

That will be music to the ears of Treasury, which has made huffy noises about putting money into Team New Zealand and the America’s Cup in the past, considering the cost-benefit ratios to be marginal.

In the Cup’s corner for the future is the T word: tourism.

By the time the next Cup is held international travel should have resumed – but is likely to be more complicated and more expensive.

New Zealand’s biggest challenge has long been in persuading tourists to make the long haul to New Zealand rather than opt for closer, cheaper and more convenient locations.

That will be even harder under the raft of complications Covid-19 has handed us.

New Zealand will need tourists back, and it will need big-spending tourists.

Hosting major events such as the America’s Cup can be powerful drawcards. People who travel a long way to watch them also tend to spend time around the event travelling the country.

Who could fit the bill better than those who come to take part in or enjoy the “rich man’s sport”?

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