Paul Lewis: Is the America’s Cup heading overseas? The unusual detail in Team New Zealand’s Government pitch

OPINION:

If there was ever a place to be a fly on the wall, it could be during the coming negotiations between Team New Zealand and the Government over the 37th America’s Cup.

Team NZ’s plans for the next Cup have put a rather large cat amongst a few America’s Cup pigeons and, even as they maintain Auckland is their venue of preference, it seems certain they have fallback options overseas.

Ineos Team UK, backed by British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe and through the Royal Yacht Squadron, have issued a challenge; talk is rife it could be a one-on-one Deed of Gift challenge in 2022 (the Deed the document that sets the ground rules for the Cup) involving only Ineos and TNZ.

Up to now, it’s been hard to know whether speculation over a potential defence in the UK was the real oil or just the bar talk which occasionally rockets through sailing circles faster than a Covid-19 outbreak.

But the decision that the AC75 foiling monohulls will be used for the next two cycles of the Cup is unusual. Normal practice is to look ahead one cycle only. It suggests they are thinking of relatively quickfire regattas – one in the UK, followed by a more conventional regatta in Auckland in 2024 (if they win in the UK).

Money is key. Team NZ don’t have any left, normal at the end of a Cup cycle. They need funds quickly to prevent key team members being poached by other syndicates and, in a Covid-affected world, sponsorship is harder to find even for skilled fundraiser Grant Dalton.

So the concept of a Ratcliffe-funded one-on-one challenge in the UK becomes more persuasive. The Cup would be at stake; one-on-one challenges were the norm in the America’s Cup before the challenger selection series was born in the 1970s. There is no legal obligation to have multiple challengers; the defender can choose the venue.

There is potentially vast theatre (and income) to be derived from a Deed of Gift challenge in the UK, the America’s Cup birthplace which has bemoaned its absence ever since. Unsuccessful British challenges have had to watch for decades as upstarts like Australia and New Zealand won it.

But what, I hear you say, about gallant challengers like the Italians, American Magic and possible re-entrants like former cup holders Alinghi? The Italians have signalled their interest in contesting AC37 – but there is no indication whether Prada will again fund the next challenger series, leaving another big-money hole if they don’t.

So let’s assume the Ineos challenge comes with a filthy great cheque attached, giving TNZ a chance to make some dollars by risking the Cup in an “away” regatta. Bermuda in 2017 and Valencia in 2007 were other examples of holders (Oracle Team USA and Alinghi) defending in countries not their own for the same reason.

So, while firmly sailing on the Sea Of Speculation right now, let’s get back to the Government who have offered $5m as interim money for TNZ to protect their flanks from raiders.

The two parties now have 90 days or thereabouts to seal a deal. If the Ineos offer comes with money attached, Dalton has a considerable crowbar to lay on the negotiating table with the Government – and the price tag for a home defence will likely have grown sizeably.

You wonder too whether the pre-Cup ruckus involving whistleblowers, questions over Team NZ’s use of funds and the heavy hand of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment might have made private funding more attractive to the team.

So it could come down to the Government’s political will – not easy to assess in a Covid-affected economy with a Government already bleeding money. They’ll be wary of backlash from those who support Team NZ but do not want an overseas defence – and that could get nasty. More than a few will regard the Team NZ stance as betrayal, even though the team see this as a matter of survival.

The Government will also have to weigh up the loss of incoming revenue from teams and supporters, benefits to the marine industry, tourism and blossoming tax dollars…in other words, all the arguments previously used to justify taxpayer funding.

There is another negative to an overseas defence; challengers like Luna Rossa, American Magic and Alinghi will not take kindly to exclusion from the UK event. They will have to keep up with the latest evolution of the AC75s to ensure they are competitive in Auckland in 2024. That could lead to a lack of interest and entries in 2024.

As for Alinghi, who poached Team NZ resources back in 2003, they have been thwarted by the new 100 per cent nationality rule for sailors; there are about as many Swiss America’s Cup sailors as there are ice rinks in the Sahara.

TNZ have also talked about measures to make the boats more affordable and other actions to encourage entries from new and emerging nations – and it’s understood they have more venue options on the table than the UK.

Whether or not this might be a good thing for New Zealand or the America’s Cup is yet to be determined, but it is likely to ignite strong feelings either way.

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