The narrative of dwindling corporate sponsors, a lack of international travellers and diminishing returns from TV exposure told amidst the Covid era is simple, hard reality for Team New Zealand and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. It’s so desperately disappointing for everyone involved. Or so it would seem. Grant Dalton and Aaron Young faced down the worried, loyal members of the Squadron last night and gave it their all.
For everyone who cheered and supported believing that somehow things would get sorted and the standard defence would be held in its natural, well-earned and rightful place of Auckland, it was a hard listen. For everyone at the Squadron who faithfully trusted in their excellent, world-class lieutenants to deliver the impossible, it was no doubt disappointing to hear that the coffers are dry. For everyone who quietly donned a Team New Zealand shirt and supped a beer at their local watering hole as the Cup unfolded, it looks like a robbery. It isn’t. It’s just plain facts. As Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
As the patriotic members of the Squadron filed into the gloomy Auckland night they could have every reason to go and find a stiff drink in town and drown their sorrows. But they’re not alone. It’s not just a Kiwi plight. The America’s Cup, if truth be told, is on life-support itself and facing one of the most challenging periods of its existence. Possibly the only thing that can save it from certain death as a sporting competition is the emergence of a world series and it’s well-known that the Origin Sports Group is sounding out multiple venues around Europe and the World to ape the travelling circus of Formula 1.
I’ve contended for a while that the self-imposed Cup hibernation is detrimental to the event. We build to a monstrous crescendo as the Cup Match is played out and then it dies a death, mired in hosting conversations, protocol re-writes and date confusion. Into the void steps conjecture, rumour and uncertainty. It’s not a sustainable business model any way you dice it. It never was. And now, with the ultimate get-out-of-jail card in Covid, although completely reasonable, sponsors have taken the chance to sit out on the sidelines. You could see this train coming from a mile off.
Lack of continuity and certainty makes modern-day, box-ticking CEOs nervous and this translates down to the Marketing team who are on point to justify every penny. The America’s Cup doesn’t stack up. It never really did. But now it’s a no-brainer to pull the plug and leave it to aged billionaires at play who either don’t have shareholders to answer to or couldn’t give a damn.
So what’s the answer? Well Covid isn’t going away for a while. We await science and its brilliance to solve the greatest issue of our time and despite mighty steps, we are a long way off eradicating it. What other sports, most notably football and F1, have done is live with it and keep the show on the road. The America’s Cup needs to do the same. It needs bold re-invention for now and quick thinking to determine a global series and execute it at pace, attracting sponsorship in through television rights and a real focus on courting and supporting the media – the ones that bring this sport to the masses.
The boats will need to be a development class within boundaries to effect a travelling series that captures interest. The one design nature of Sail GP isn’t quite cutting it in the intrigue stakes and we have to see continual upgrades coming through akin to Formula 1 to keep the Cup mystique alive. Sailing technique has a habit of plateauing as is evident in Sail GP and events will need to be longer than a weekend – perhaps a month in each venue on a 6 to 8 venue year-long circuit with full Covid protocols in place? My vote would be for the Cup to be decided in the holders backyard with the Challenger racing the Defender and that, in the current world, means Auckland in 2024.
Rocket-fuel money needs to be injected to effect this and it’s here where the Cup turns to the largesse of the B’s to get the initial series up and running. In time it will become a self-serving sponsorship jamboree but take a two to three year hit on the initial running costs and secure Team New Zealand as Formula 1 has done for decades with Ferrari.
Without the Prancing Horse marque, Bernie Ecclestone knew that Formula 1 was a dead duck. Rights money flowed askew from the rest of the field to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s only recently that things have levelled although the terms of Ferrari’s engagement in the sport are still shrouded in some secrecy. A Cup without the Kiwis isn’t worth winning. They are the Ferrari of our sport. They should be wrapped in cotton-wool and funded to the hilt to ensure their participation. Sponsorship will come but it will take time. In a global sense, it’s chump change when the accountants weigh up the Cup versus any other elite sport on a global basis. It can be done. It must be done.
Jim Ratcliffe asked for change as a return for his getting involved as Challenger of Record and change is what he’s got. It’s going to happen or else it’s over. Necessity is the mother of all invention and the Cup has to reinvent itself and be bold. And amidst the change, wouldn’t it be nice to see real structural change – it’s a golden chance to bring in diversity and female athletes. It’s the time to rip up the manual, challenge the quirks, drive innovation and sustainability and create something of relevance and interest that will serve the sport so well into the future.
For those Kiwis despairing at the current situation, hold tight. There’s always a darkness before dawn but there’s real optimism in the air for the future, hard as that may seem to believe. The Cup will thrive but it will be different. All hail to its future. I can sense something amazing just around the corner.