The last America’s Cup

In New Zealand, human history begins in or around the thirteenth century. The same century the Mongol Empire captures Baghdad, defeats Hungary, and ends the Song Dynasty, Polynesians – perhaps the most accomplished seafarers in the world – reach New Zealand, the last major landmass settled by humans.

The country is like nothing else in Polynesia: continental rather than volcanic, temperate rather than tropical, and terribly isolated. Yet the founders, who would go on to become Māori, thrive. The thirteenth-century East Polynesians who settled Wairau Bay, not far from where the Dutchman Abel Tasman made anchorage 400 years later, were tall (taller than the average European at the time) and free of debilitating diseases like malaria, yaws or syphilis.

Historians and archaeologists on our side of the world acknowledge this Polynesian migration as one of the great human endeavours. A test of collective courage, navigational skill, and ocean-going technology. We memorialise the migration in pūrākau (narratives) describing Kupe, who in some tribal tellings is the first Polynesian to reach New Zealand, as well as in Pākehā museums, galleries and sports. Waka ama teams sometimes name their waka (outrigger canoes) after the early Polynesian migration vessels, for example. This makes a certain sense: waka ama is a primarily Polynesian sport with the fiercest competition taking place on the very Tahitian islands from which the thirteenth-century East Polynesians undertook their tremendous journeys to New Zealand, Hawai’i, and Rapanui (Easter Islands). In their naming conventions, waka ama teams acknowledge this history.      

But could you consider it proper if an America’s Cup team did the same?

Not that Team New Zealand, our ‘national’ team in the Cup, is quite that explicit. The vessel in the last Cup race was Te Rehuatai, a name given with consent from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei in central Auckland. Yet in other, perhaps more insidious ways, Team New Zealand isn’t afraid to draw on the history of Polynesian voyaging to distinguish the team from its competitors or appeal to sponsors. In 2007 Helen Clark’s Labour government sent a waka and a crew to that year’s Cup race in Valencia, a statement of the country’s status as a ‘maritime nation’, and in 2013 John Key’s National government sent a kapa haka group and ‘waka-shaped pavilion’ to the race in San Francisco, a nod to ‘NZ Inc’ as much as it was to the history of Polynesian voyaging.

In 2021, a waka and its crew took to the waters of the Waitemata Harbour to help open this year’s competition.

From a Māori perspective, this seems, at best, a little kitsch, and at worst, a form of exploitation. When the waka that took to the waters of the Waitemata, with a dozen or so oarsmen cutting across the waves in the opening ceremony, was sent back to storage, and the oarsmen returned to their day jobs, Māori involvement in the Cup ended. Team New Zealand is exclusively Pākehā, and their spectators almost certainly look much the same as the team too. This ethnic divide was especially stark in the 1997 regatta, when Penehamine​ Netana-Patuawa took a hammer to the Auld Mug (the physical cup itself) identifying it as a symbol of oppression because ‘none of the money made from the race would reach Māori’.

Sailing is an antidemocratic sport. I mean that earnestly, not glibly: unlike football where the only barrier to entry is an opponent, a ball, and enough space to kick it, sailing requires an initial investment in the thousands of dollars. The boat is the obvious outlay, but on top of that you also need the right gear and the best coaching.

Even as a spectator, the sport is almost impossible to engage with. From the shoreline, for example, it takes binoculars to divine what is happening on the water. The sport generates its drama and its engagement, then, almost exclusively from television. Sir Ian Taylor, perhaps the only Māori one could describe with a role in the Cup, made his name in business as the company owner behind pioneering 3D graphics allowing spectators to track which boat was out in front.

That televisual breakthrough, allowing spectators a bird’s eye view of the race, is partly responsible for taking the sport from the realm of an exceedingly small number of committed fans (primarily wealthy yacht club members) to other segments of the middle class. In most sports, clubs democratise who gets to play. Ordinary community members take matches, coaching, and gear to the masses. But in yachting, advertisers were responsible for taking the sport public using television to transform what was traditionally a sparse affair into a festival for luxury brands. Team New Zealand became ‘Emirates Team New Zealand’ as the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates stamped its logo over the Kiwi team’s sail.  The global consulting companies McKinsey & Company and EY also came on board alongside local law firms like Bell Gully, an arrangement perhaps reflecting the class position of the spectators and fans.

Oddly, however, these sponsorship arrangements are what distinguish Team New Zealand from its competitors. Of course, nearly every team relies on sponsorship to some extent, but they can couple it with billionaire backing. The Swiss team Alinghi, for example, can call on financial backing from Ernesto Bertarelli, a professional director whose family is worth approximately USD$30b. The American team can call on a similar arrangement with Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, which is also the named sponsor of ‘Oracle Team USA’. It’s unclear how much cash these billionaires sink into their respective teams, but considering research and development into new vessels, construction, salaries for sailors and administrators, it’s likely to run into the tens of millions.

No billionaires back Team New Zealand. The taxpayer does.  

In the last Cup, the government and Auckland Council made cash and in-kind contributions worth $250m to Team New Zealand. This is an enormous figure for a minority sport where practically no international spectators were present and where the ‘benefits’ are no more than amorphous claims like ‘putting New Zealand technology on the map’. Yet the boasted technology ‘innovations’ in the Cup are without form or function. Spinoffs from military technology include microwaves and jet engines and canned food and duct tape. Spinoffs from space technology include cochlear implants, memory foam, water purification systems, and of course ‘space blankets’. But what spinoffs arise from the America’s Cup? Some innovations are hardly innovations at all, like the double-hull, a sailing invention East Polynesians made to their vessels in the thirteenth century, making trans-Pacific voyaging possible.

With the benefits so uncertain, and in a sport that barely crosses class and ethnic lines, it seems outrageous for the New Zealand government to consider another, likely steeper investment in the Cup’s defence.

The best test seems a public investment for a public return. But the benefits of the Cup, such as they are, accrue privately. In 2014 Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton was earning $2m each year. In 2021 that figure is likely far higher. The other winners are the business owners – retailers, hoteliers, and hospitality owners – who benefit from the Cup’s staging on the Auckland waterfront, at enormous cost to the public, with losses from this past edition conservatively estimated at $156 million. Beyond that? Every other benefit seems like a stretch.  

We should stop doing this.


Image: Richard Hodder

Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a writer and trade unionist. He lives in Dunedin and works at the University of Otago.

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  1. What a load of absolute waffle. As a poor man who has never owned a yacht I have enjoyed hiring boats and I love the Americas cup. I spent many days volunteering on the waterfront during the cup and saw plenty of Maori there enjoying the atmosphere.

  2. Two hundred and fifty million?
    Yet another example of corporate welfare.
    Could build a lot of homes for the homeless with that.
    Could put a musical instrument in the hands of every child in poverty.
    Could build a community veggie garden in every suburb and town.
    Could place free sailing boats on every beach.
    Tell em they’re dreamin.

    1. “Tell em they’re dreamin.” Cultural appropriation! The phrase comes from the Australian movie, The Castle. /s

      Kiwis (whether Māori or Pākehā) showed the world, that these little islands mattered!

  3. The poor will always be with you …
    Political profligates too.
    The governments splash out on circuses.
    While the national debts accrue.

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