Sailing professor Mark Orams: D-Day for Team New Zealand as compromise looms for future of America’s Cup

OPINION
The racing may be over for 2021 but the controversy that always accompanies the America’s Cup never sleeps.

Tonight’s meeting between Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the official holders of the Auld Mug, is a huge moment in the history of the famous trophy.

I suspect it will be an emotionally charged meeting with Dalton trying to convince the members that the only way to fund Team NZ is to take the next defence of the cup offshore. Many in the audience will vehemently oppose this, determined that it should remain here.

At stake, I believe, will be the very future of the current Team New Zealand line up.

Peter Burling, Blair Tuke and the rest of this amazing team are the most successful in America’s Cup history. As we saw during the defence of the cup in Auckland this year, Team New Zealand has the jump on the opposition in terms of talent and intellectual property.

But financial pressure means the team is in danger of losing its competitive advantage as happened 20-odd years ago, with disastrous results.

Back then, our best talent was raided by the opposition, the Kiwi team was left on its knees, the cup was lost to a skilled and well-organised opponent, and it took 15 long years to get it back.

My hope, and plea to all involved, is that we don’t put ourselves in this position again.

My understanding is that the Emirates airline, which has been TNZ’s principal backer, will not be continuing with their sponsorship.

But whether they stay or not, Dalton may still be in a position where he needs to take the next contest overseas, in order to secure the massive amounts of money needed to keep the team together.

Whether anyone likes it or not, cash is key at this level of professional sport.

Dalton has been through negotiations with the New Zealand Government and local council and it is obvious their financial offer is not enough.There are no New Zealand-based sponsors with deep enough pockets either.

So where does Dalton find the $200m needed?

Internationally, there are a select few high-net-worth individuals who admire and are envious of Team New Zealand’s achievements. They want to replicate it – or perhaps even buy into it.

It is this scenario that he will be talking through with the membership of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron tonight.

To cut to the chase, I believe the answer may lie in the proposal put forward by the British team Ineos, who are prepared to stump up with a huge amount of money in return for a special one-on-one challenge at the Isle of Wight next year.

In return billionaire owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe will guarantee Auckland as the next venue over the 2023/24 summer even if he wins the Isle of Wight challenge.

Okay, this may not be ideal. But if it keeps TNZ together, it is worth the trade-off.

And I don’t think it would be all bad.

Brand New Zealand would get promoted in Europe next year, the America’s Cup momentum would be sustained while generating interest in the key northern hemisphere cities, and most importantly multinational sponsors would get exposure in big markets.

For RNZYS members, and the wider New Zealand public – the benefit is that the Cup will be hosted here in Auckland in 2023/24 – and hopefully in a world where COVID-19 is under control and we have the opportunity to host teams, fans, sponsors and super-yachts.

It’s a difficult compromise – but if it allows Team New Zealand to stay intact and competitive – it might be a compromise worth making. Dalton’s challenge is to convince the squadron membership of this and to successfully persuade them that the alternative is not palatable. That is, a significantly weakened Team New Zealand lines up in 2022/23 summer and loses, badly.

One thing is certain about Dalts – he hates losing with a passion.

He has faced many challenges in his long sailing career. This is certainly another one where he will be facing further controversy. He will need all of his famed determination and thick skin to get through it.

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When approached by the Herald, Team NZ CEO Grant Dalton said they were unaware of suggestions Emirates intend to end their sponsorship.

“Emirates have been the naming rights sponsor of the team for 18 years. We have no knowledge of this, however, we are well aware (of) the difficulties that all airlines are experiencing at present due to Covid so (we) would in fact be completely understanding if that was the case.”

Professor Mark Orams is a former NZ and world champion sailor, Team New Zealand member, author, environmentalist and Professor of Sport and Recreation at the Auckland University of Technology.

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