America's Cup - does Auckland really want to be bothered?

The America's Cup could cause more groans than cheers if it returns to Auckland.

The America’s cup could be on its way back to Auckland in 2017 but it’s unlikely to be as exciting or game changing for the city as last time.

And authorities in Auckland could be forgiven for quietly hoping Oracle beats Emirates-sponsored Team New Zealand in its upcoming series in San Francisco Bay.

There are a number of reasons why staging the cup in Auckland for the first time since 2003 could be more trouble than it’s worth, for the city and for taxpayers and ratepayers who will inevitably subsidise the event.

For starters, public interest in the cup is much lower than it was when Team New Zealand won it in 1995 in the boat nicknamed “Black Magic” and successfully defended it in Auckland in 2000.

Back then the whole nation was behind the team, with people around the country copying Sir Peter Blake’s trademark “lucky red socks”.

Large crowds of people flocked to Auckland’s waterfront to catch a glimpse of the black boat in 2000, but this sort of turnout is unlikely next time around.

The popularity of the cup was dented when skipper Sir Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth defected to Swiss challenger Alinghi after the successful Team New Zealand defence in 2000. 

Suddenly the feel-good fuzzies evaporated and Kiwis now saw the cup as a contest between billionaires, with sailors cast as mercenaries rather than heroes.

The hefty taxpayer funding for Team New Zealand’s failed America’s Cup defence in 2003 didn’t help this perception.

Since then the event has turned into a farce with protracted court action and disputes over what type of yacht to use, among other things. 

Prime Minister John Key recently said the legal squabbles were making the cup “tiresome” and a poll found 61% of NBR ONLINE subscribers agreed. 

If foreigners show similar apathy towards the cup it will greatly reduce the tourism benefits of the event.

Some of the other economic events from hosting the cup previously are unlikely to materialise in 2017.

While hosting the cup led to a revitalisation of Auckland’s waterfront (see photo), the process is so advanced the issue now is where to fit the syndicates that would take part in the cup.

The Viaduct Harbour no longer has the space required, so Waterfront Auckland is looking at six different possible sites for development in the area.

As with any one-off event, there is the risk of ratepayer and/or taxpayer money being wasted on facilities that may turn into white elephants, such as the ‘Cloud’ built for the Rugby World Cup.  

And due to the smaller number of teams competing these days, the benefits to the local boating industry could be affected.

This could change if Team New Zealand decides to switch the model of yacht from the current AC72s, which are prohibitively expensive to build.

The timing of the next America’s Cup will also present some headaches for city officials, as it won’t even be the biggest event in Auckland in 2017.

That honour belongs to the World Masters Games, which will bring an estimated 25,000 competitors across 30 sports, with many thousands more spectators expected.

Trying to plan for both events in the same year won’t be easy for a city which had the management of its waterfront nationalised during Rugby World Cup 2011 after the opening night debacle.

It’s important this outcome is avoided as 2017 is also an election year and there’s a chance the government of the day will take a “bread and circuses” approach that puts on a great show at great expense to taxpayers.

The better approach would be to take existing plans for the waterfront and use the America’s Cup as a catalyst to bring important projects forward.

Another factor to consider is Auckland’s City Rail Link, which could also create some traffic disruption in the central city if the council gets its wish and the project begins in 2016. 

On the plus side, the America’s Cup wouldn’t be anywhere near as costly to host as the Rugby World Cup and would probably cost less than the Masters Games.  There won't be any empty stadia.

The teams will also stay much longer in New Zealand than the rugby teams who jetted in an out within a few weeks.

If wasteful monuments are avoided and the public shows enough interest the America’s Cup could once again be Auckland’s triumph.

But we have to win the thing first.

nkloeten@nbr.co.nz

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