Whose Team New Zealand?

As much as anybody I enjoy sports and competition, so much so that I enjoy watching top level competition in sports that I am unfamiliar with. I have therefore enjoyed watching the America’s Cup racing, not so much because of the nationality of the teams but because of the boat design, speed, tactics and seamanship involved. In fact, I am poorly placed to get worked up on patriotic grounds because as readers of my earlier post on liminality may remember, I have allegiances to several countries and divided loyalties as a result. Moreover, I believe patriotism to be the last (and best) refuge of political scoundrels so I endeavour to resist its emotional pull wherever I happen to be living.

In this America’s Cup series I am cheering for Team New Zealand because I know that it means a lot to New Zealand and very little to the US. Other than rugby, Kiwis tend to adopt a “David versus Goliath” approach to international team sports. They are not alone in this small country syndrome, as I have pointed out previously with regard to Uruguay and team sports other than soccer. But in New Zealand that syndrome extends beyond sports, including into the international political and economic arenas.

With regard to the America’s Cup, here in NZ there is live blow by blow coverage of every meter of every race, whereas in the US it is not being covered live anywhere except on boutique cable boating channels. Here it is front page news in every newspaper and news broadcast. In the US it barely rates a header in the sports section of big city newspapers, including that of the race venue San Francisco. Heck, in Texas high school football (the helmeted version) gets more coverage on a weekend than the America’s Cup has had in a year!

In the US most people do not give a darn that Larry Ellison indulges a billionaire fancy with a crew that includes only one American. Here people want to name their first born sons after Dean Barker. They also want that turncoat, traitorous preferably ex-kiwi Russell Coutts strung from the lanyard because he dared to work for the competition. In other words, Kiwis are heavily invested in the outcome whereas in the US they are not.

Or are Kiwis that heavily invested? From what I gather from video coverage of people watching the race live on television on the Auckland waterfront, there is hardly a brown face in the mix. The same goes for those Kiwis who have traveled to the America’s Cup Village in San Francisco. Pure pakeha pulsation throughout.

So where are the non-Pakeha kiwis when it comes to this race? Are they just not into sailing? If so, why not? Why is something that is so heavily promoted by the media and advertisers as a nationalistic rallying point having so little impact on non-Pakeha communities?

I ask because the New Zealand taxpayers have put $38 million into Team Emirates for this race series (both Labour and National support the expenditure). So whether or not they are emotionally invested in the racing, Kiwis are financially invested in it. The public expenditure was justified on grounds that the economic benefits to NZ of a future Cup defense in the event of a win would justify the investment (since winners get to name the venue for the next race). The narrow investment now is said to bring greater and broader future returns.

Besides the fact that no public consultation preceded the allocation of taxpayer money to Team Emirates, the issue of benefits is thorny. Even if Auckland benefits from hosting a future defense of the Cup (and that would mostly go temporarily to hoteliers, restaurants, bars and other service sector providers), what about the rest of the country? Other than Auckland based niche industries like boat-building and sail-making and a few high-end tourist locations and ventures, is it true that the country as a whole will benefit from the tax revenues generated by increased economic activity in Auckland? Do we really expect to believe that places like Ruatoki and Twizel will see direct benefit from an America’s Cup defense in Auckland?

It should be noted that Team Oracle USA received no public funds for its Cup defense, and that the redevelopment of the Embarcadero in San Francisco was a majority private venture that has not yielded the economic dividends to the city that were originally tabled by way of justification for holding the race there. So the “future benefits” argument is contentious at best, especially if drawn over the long-term. Yet spending public money on the challenge is seen as in the long-term NZ national interest.

Put another way, why is it that NZ taxpayers coughed up money for a yacht race campaign that not all New Zealanders care about and which relatively few New Zealanders will benefit from in the form of future uncertain economic returns in the event of a successful challenge this year? Since hosting the Cup defense will undoubtably include allocations of more taxpayer dollars to infrastructure and venue development, is this an appropriate use of public money? Given that the food in schools program receives just $10 million a year, could it not be argued that government priorities are a bit out of whack when it comes to long-term investment in the nation’s future?

Leftist conspiracy types will claim that the government subsidy for a small appeal elitist sport is designed to benefit its rich and upper middle class business supporters, nothing more. I would hope not, but then again I come back to the question of who in New Zealand is truly supporting the Cup challenge. Is the America’s Cup for the few or for the many? In the US it is for the few by the few, but here in NZ the issue appears a bit more complicated.

Anyway, I could be entirely wrong in my read and certainly do not have a good handle on the extent of support for the America’s Cup outside of what I have seen and heard in the media. Readers are welcome to ponder and comment on the issue.

Better to do that than to get started on the subject of host venue race time limits being enforced in low wind conditions on a day when a overwhelming match-winning victory by the challengers was in sight!

25 thoughts on “Whose Team New Zealand?

  1. Sailing everywhere, and most especially in the US and Europe as far I’ve seen, is a an elite sport. The simple reason for this is that even the smallest sail boats are expensive to own and maintain, and waterfront access goes for a premium in most of these places. In my experience sailing in NZ is much more accessible than elsewhere and has a much broader socio-economic base, probably because we have so much open access to the water, and there isn’t an expensive system of obligatory sailing licences. A tradition of little local sailing clubs helps too. And they do say the City of Sails has more boats per capita than anywhere else in the world – I don’t know how you’d really measure such a thing but the venerable NZ Herald quotes stats that say 1 in 3 households owns a boat, there are 135,000 registered yachts and launches, and almost half of the country’s registered sailors live there. I guess numbers like that go some way to accounting for the popularity.

    But it’s still very expensive to get out on the water, and especially to own and run even a small yacht. I think it’s that fact that accounts for the clear socio-economic profile of the sport’s following and its overlap with ethnicity. In the small coastal town I’m from, the sailing community is overwhelmingly Pakeha, yet not exactly the elite kind, as people there generally build and maintain their own yachts because it’s the only way to afford to be able to go sailing. This sailing community scoffs at the America’s Cup and the “Auckland boys” of ETNZ because of the obscene amounts of money involved: the local sailing club even went so far as to host a series of tongue-in-cheek “champagne” breakfasts to watch the races (obscene it may be, but the sailings is still amazing). I think those sports fans would generally rather see the public money that went into those boats going into the local hospital where services have been on the decline for a decade, or to support the local decile-1 high school. It might save them time on organising community fund raisers and sausage sizzles at the very least, and this despite the fact that a few local boys who learnt to sail in that club also went on to make a name for themselves (and a fortune) cutting sails for ETNZ, back in the days when they still used them, that is.

  2. Thanks Felz, that was a very helpful contribution.

    Perhaps I am wrong in doing so, but I tend to separate the sail crowd from the power crowd, especially when the latter are of the tinnie variety. My impression is that the guys with the trailer boats are into fishing, not sailing. That does not deny that they and others may have a visceral loyalty to anything in black that is competing in the international arena.

    Your description of the small provincial sailing scene is illuminating.

    I wonder if there have been any Maori or Pacifika crew on AC boats. No ex All Blacks?

  3. “… small appeal elitist sport is designed to benefit its rich and upper middle class business supporters…”

    This is the main flaw in your argument IMHO. Enough NZer’s have enough knowledge of matters nautical to understand the event, especially in the Pakeha middle class where sailing occupies a definite class status. The Pakeha middle class is essentially the top 20%, not just the rich and upper middle class, and its aspirations mean they identify with a multi-millionaire money trader as PM and with the America’s Cup. The America’s Cup is a perfect distillation of their values – “high performing” employees of billion dollar corporate names (like them!), lots and lots of money, globalised (the nationalism is media driven drivel), glamorous, and involving the United States – the current destination de jour for all middle class Kiwis now our dollar is so high and America struggling in cut-price recession. Also, the Pakeha middle class completely control the media – from John Rougham to Peter Williams to Alison Mau to John Campbell to Tony Veitch to Murray Deaker to Mike Hoskings, it is wall to wall comfortably well off whites who set the news agenda and who preach the corporate values of the America’s Cup.

    For me, I spent fifteen years at sea as a commercial fisherman – A ferociously common sense business which if done properly is largely about relentless tedium and careful prudential decision making – and I find the AC72 a fascinating class to watch. The boats oscillate constantly between absurd madness and awesome genius. But I haven’t really brought into the event. It is fundamentally bad seamanship to go to sea in anything you can’t safely navigate 100% of the time. The rules are ridiculous and the protagonists have egos more suited to cartoon characters.

    Perhaps the America’s Cup is the ultimate pre-GFC metaphor of the aspirational middle class in a way they don’t grasp – extravagantly wasteful, marked by an unrelieved string of almost comically bad decisions made by grossly overpaid “experts”, and convinced of nothing so much as its own importance.

  4. I’ve never understood why Russell Coutts gets so much stick when the likes of, say, Warren Gatland do not.

  5. Adrian – Gatland didn’t take the Cup off us. Coutts has a few times. So our resentment is clearly consequentialist rather than a matter of principle! ;-)

  6. “host venue race time limits being enforced in low wind conditions on a day when a overwhelming match-winning victory by the challengers was in sight!”

    Don’t many sports have time limits? I’ve never seen a one day cricket match have a couple of extra overs added on to be a bit more sporting to the visitors?

    $38 million would buy every NZ school a small fleet of Toppers or Optimists – we could actually all become sailors then.

    Also, I think 99% of those commenting on the yots have absolutely stuff-all knowledge of the sport. A series like this (rather like F1 motor-racing) is an R&D challenge more than anything else, and has nothing to do with “showing a bit of keewee mungrel” or other platitudinous crap.

  7. Thanks Pablo for another thoughtful commentary. I always find your thoughts worthwhile. The Americas Cup is an example of direct and indirect Corporate influence on Government. NZ is a small country and easy pickings for corporate lobbyists and influence. This is just another example of it. Other examples are numerous, Sky City convention Centre/ Pokies, Tiwai Point/ Rio Tinto, Synlait / Canterbury Regional Council, Ruataniwha and Fonterra, NZTA and trucking lobby, Fletchers, SKY TV etc etc. Its understandable when you ” follow the money”. Business rulz NZ. You will occasionaly hear NZ INC. used as an unconcious expression of this. I hope you disagree and make a convincing counter argument. The other comments on your post are ‘on the money’
    Keep up the good work. Our Democracy needs it!

  8. When Trevor Mallard gave the money to TNZ I was opposed to it because, simply, it was a subsidy to the rich (no offence meant to Grant Dalton, a true battler), and we all know that the benefits of sporting events usually do not outweigh the costs.

    QE II Stadium, anyone? It was a goner long before the earthquakes!

    However, I loved the final series, not least because I figured that one way or the other, we would get finessed, and we did. But it was fun.

    So I am conflicted.

    But I would rather government (our) money went to food in schools, for example, or community college night classes, than to fun in the sun for affluent white folks like me.

  9. How many millions per year goes into propping up the Rugby Union?

    At least the spending on the boats helps develop technology in several fields (materials especially but there’s also design, engineering and software) and, yes, will also help NZ’s boat building sector.

    The spending on rugby doesn’t develop anything at all. In fact, all that the NZ government spending on rugby does is allow for a few overpaid thugs to run around a field while a few even more overpaid administrators get to organise them.

  10. @Draco) The Rugby comparison is an interesting one, because I would argue that it has been far more successful in energising local communities in recent years than any other sport. Take for example the street parades that occur every time a new team wins the Ranfurly Shield. Thousands of people turned out in Pukekohe and Napier because they felt a strong connection to their provincial team. As well as that, rugby structures, for better or worse, go deep into most communities in NZ, through the club system.

    What does rugby develop? We should not forget that elite sport is an industry just like many others, and there are now quite a few New Zealanders working around the world in various aspects of elite sports thanks to their involvement with rugby. As well as that, it does offer a pathway out of poverty for those that make as players from poor backgrounds.

    Compare that to sailing, when we jump up and down in an orgy of nationalistic fervour when it looks like we are going to win, and then look the other way when we lose. For all its (many, oh so many) flaws, rugby is ours, whereas even if we had won the Americas Cup would have still been the preserve of the elite.

  11. Interesting points Awbraae. I guess the difference in opinion you have with Draco is rooted in the assignment of value.

    What has more value to NZ?

    Entrepeneurship and technological innovation in a niche industry that caters to high end sports customers but which has the potential for international mass market spin-off effect?

    Or a traditional, culturally inscribed sports institution that is also a niche market (in a business sense) but which reaffirms notions of national identity and offers a pathway of opportunity for a select few?

    If it is the latter than Felz’s first comment above has particular relevance.

    One thing I believe in both instances is that the central government should not be putting taxpayer money into either sport. If local governments want to fund them and ratepayers agree, then fine. But for the big ticket or expensive sports, it should be left to sponsors. If any taxpayer funding is to be spent on sports it should be to a broader range of minor sports and nurturing junior competitors.

  12. Awbrae:

    “As well as that, it does offer a pathway out of poverty for those that make as players from poor backgrounds.”

    I find that a pretty weak and troubling justification for pro sport. Doesn’t that just help to reinforce the social and political structures that keep so many in poverty? “Say what you want about the Maori/Pacific Islanders/African Americans, they make good athletes”… or I could think of worse… Wouldn’t that money be better spent on community and economic development and getting better health and educational outcomes?

  13. I’m sceptical that the technology spin off from America’s cup boat building is of any wider benefit. Firstly, those types of boats are so specific that the innovations that make them more effective at their very narrow task are unlikely to be useful elsewhere. Secondly, and more broadly, any benefit is likely to just go into boat building corporations’ bottom lines – not something the taxpayer should be helping out on.

    But ultimately, the question is, can any sports team genuinely carry forward, represent, or meaningfully benefit the lives of a large group of people? The answer, beyond the entertainment value, is no.

  14. @Pablo – I suppose I would see it as a question of economic and cultural access to a particular sport. The benefits of being involved in sport throughout life are undeniable, both for reasons of health and well being, and for being part of a community. Again, I should point out I think rugby culture in New Zealand is deeply flawed, but in terms of access to those benefits, literally anyone in New Zealand can be involved in sports like rugby, football, league, not necessarily as a participant but in a variety of facets. If government money is to be spent on sport, then far better it is spent in areas where people might have little else going for them, rather than propping up a business venture only accessible to the already super wealthy.

    @Chris – Sure, you can and should say that it is a troubling justification for pro sport, and in many cases that argument does manifest itself as a thinly veiled racist remark. However, it is undeniable that under the current economic system, pro sport can be a ticket to university, business opportunities, or simply the sort of money for families that otherwise wouldn’t have any access to. And as for spending ‘that money’, by and large it is private money rather than public.

  15. @awbraae

    Oh, wow, street parades… Wait, what?

    I don’t have a problem with people playing sports and, in fact, think it’s a good idea and even think that local government should help sporting clubs. I do have a problem with government propping up professional players and I certainly don’t think of it as a valid path out of poverty as it applies to so few.

    As far as funding the America’s Cup goes I think the government should be supplying all the funding and not just some of it. The funding goes to universities/polytechs for the research and development with the government ending up owning the patents. Those patents could then be leased to NZ firms. Thing is, it’s not really funding for the race but ongoing funding for R&D that can be used in the race. The race just proves the technology as car races, boat races and airplane races have done for over a century.

    This can’t be done with rugby because, quite simply, no development comes out of rugby.


    The microwave oven you’ve got in the kitchen is a direct result of the space program. So is the PC you wrote the comment on (There’s more and some of them are remarkably surprising). The materials science that comes out of the America’s Cup will one day find itself in some common household item (Car, motorcycle, bicycle). The wing technology may one day go toward powering ships.

    Technological R&D tends to have massive spin-offs in other areas.

  16. @Draco

    Really, I thought the microwave was a product of WW2 radar technology. But regardless, just because some tech have spin off effects, doesn’t mean it all does.

    But you know, if we really do want the government to spend money on things that will result in the development of commercial appliances for private sale, maybe we should just fund that research, not fund research into something else and see what comes out. We’d have had microwave ovens years earlier if the British government had been sinking hundreds of millions of pounds into kitchen appliances, not ways to detect incoming aircraft.

  17. @Hugh

    It was the visible hand of the State which made these innovations happen. Innovation that would not have come about had we waited for the ‘market’ and business to do it alone – or government to simply stand aside and provide the basics.

    Mazzucato, Mariana (2013-05-15). The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Myths in Risk and Innovation (Kindle Locations 458-460). Anthem Press. Kindle Edition.

    And it is no coincidence that a similar agency in today’s US Department of Energy, ARPA-E, is not only leading US green investments, but also having fun on the way (welcoming the trial and error process in energy research rather than fearing it) and attracting great brains in energy research (Grunwald 2012).

    Mazzucato, Mariana (2013-05-15). The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Myths in Risk and Innovation (Kindle Locations 475-477). Anthem Press. Kindle Edition.

    The state drives innovation – always has. As I said, the race just becomes a proving ground for the tech and it’s only one area that it can be used in.

    I mentioned the space program specifically because a number of advances used in it spun off into civilian use. Advances that would not have happened without the research into going into space.

  18. @Draco: Do you really think any of those space shuttle spinoffs would have been impossible to create even if they had been researched specifically?

  19. Experience is the driver of ideas. The Space program was, and is, a unique experience.

    So, no, I don’t think it is impossible that some of those spin-offs would have occurred without the Space program, I just think it would have taken years, and possibly decades, longer.

    How would anyone have known that microwaves heated food without the research into radar? What would have specifically been researched to produce the microwave oven?

    Of course, a space program is far broader than a boat race and I happen to think that NZ needs one because it will push innovation. Far more interesting as well.

  20. No, just reading history and thus building an understanding of where innovation comes from. Saying let’s go to space is more motivating than saying let’s build a better mouse trap and we’ll most likely still end up with a better mouse trap as well as a hell of a lot more.

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