The $293m blowout: How Americas Cup cost benefit reports swimming in red provides a vague optimism


The devil in the detail is what New Zealanders perhaps hoped they’d uncover with the release of 283 pages of cost benefit analysis of the 36th America’s Cup last week.

Out of the four official national and local government commissioned reports that landed on Tuesday, confusion remains over Auckland Council’s now inflated official $215.2 million spend on the event.

Intrigue surrounding billionaire backers in New Zealand and abroad colluding to keep the Cup in Auckland has also been heightened with advice in the reports that the event’s $293m economic loss could be recouped if the 37th event returned to our shores.

Yet the financial outcome of the Auckland sailing showpiece this summer was always going to be “swimming in red” on the balance sheet as one America’s Cup insider said last week.

Back in 2017, when the only other cost benefit analysis was completed by MBIE the dollar to dollar return on the 36th America’s Cup (AC36) was judged at a ratio between 0.997 and1.14.

NZ Institute economist Eric Crampton last week reiterated an observation of AC36 he’d made for many years that “investing in risky projects should require strong cost benefit ratios, so that minor blips do not blow out the figures”.

Covid-19 was a not so minor blip that decimated the lucrative superyacht arrivals to just 27 over the 2020/21 summer. In the 2017 MBIE report, 160 superyachts had been expected here at an average spend of $2.72m amounting to $436m.

But unforeseen travel restrictions were not the only cause of the loss. It was observed that an extra five challengers to the event, the likes of which were present in 2017 at Bermuda, would have generated our economy an extra $150m.

So blame has to equally be levelled at the ambition of Team NZ in creating the AC75 monohulls that proved so difficult to build they had Grant Dalton offering to share basic design packages with potential competitors to get them to sign up to compete on the Waitemata Harbour this summer.

After Auckland Council and the Government together invested a total of $774m in the three-month event, the $293m loss to the economy was not even surprising in its magnitude to most bureaucrats, veteran sailors and America’s Cup stakeholders.

Council on Tuesday announced an extra $92m spend on bringing forward “already planned projects” for the event which several in council questioned were infrastructure projects that even would have been seriously contemplated if not for AC36.

Up to June 2020, council were responding to requests from the Herald with assurances that the originally pledged $113m of ratepayer funds for the event – with an extra $20m from council’s emergency budget in 2020 – was their total spend for AC36.

And the reports reiterated the predictable conclusion that one way of recouping the lost $293m from the event would be to hold it again in Auckland as Government had aspired to during the three-month negotiating period with Team NZ that ended on June 17.

The Herald can reveal there are now conversations with two local billionaires and people overseas interested in keeping the cup in NZ.

How much money was actually lost?

The number which Auckland Unlimited was promoting as the loss for the New Zealand economy was $156m, which represented 79 cents in the dollar return for the Government and Auckland Council’s $744m spend.

The “non-monetised benefit” of AC36 for New Zealand which the Fresh Info report deemed at $588.1m was made up of several criteria:

– Long-term environmental benefits for Auckland and New Zealand
– Positive experiences and memories for Auckland and New Zealand residents
– Positive Māori outcomes
– The role sailing on home waters may have played in ETNZ’s successful defence of the America’s Cup, which has created the option for Auckland and New Zealand to host a future America’s Cup event (subject to commercial negotiations).
– Greater awareness of sailing
– Educational outcomes

But the Fresh Info report finds when “Focusing solely on financial impacts … a net benefit of -$145.8m (benefit-cost ratio of 0.72) for Auckland and a net benefit of -$292.7m (benefit-cost ratio of 0.48) for New Zealand (including Auckland)”.

That’s a saving of $137m for those non-monitised benefits judged by Fresh Info.

Auckland University Professor of economics Tim Hazledine observes “there is a bias” in the criteria and timing of how the Fresh Info report assesses the net benefit of AC36 and its “non-financial impacts” on New Zealand.

“The researchers did a lot of post-event surveying of people about how good it all was, and their willingness to pay etc, and that’s useful,” Hazledine said.

“But the bias is: We won! If we hadn’t won, the evaluations would likely have been rather less happy, and, of course, for future decision making, the possibility of not-winning has to be allowed for.

“It was interesting that a non monetary benefit listed was what you could call the home-field advantage – that having it here increased the chance of us winning, if only because it reduced the number of competitors, also because our sailors know the Gulf so well, and winning delivers the option value of being able to choose where to defend the Cup next time.”

Of course, it’s now known that winning AC36 has not provided value to New Zealand in having a choice to host the next event – which will instead be made by Team NZ executives such as Grant Dalton.

The value of media and viewing numbers which Auckland Unlimited has bandied about was also put under scrutiny by Hazledine – particularly the awareness of sailing and “positive experiences and memories for Auckland”.

Auckland Unlimited chief executive Nick Hill pointed to several positives of the event – including the most-watched America’s Cup of all time, with a total global audience of 941 million people.

“The Report promises to look at the net benefits of the Cup relative to the Cup having taken place somewhere else, but I don’t think they really succeed in pinning this down,” Hazeldine said.

“Having it happen in our time zone meant that it occurred in our mid to late afternoon, which was just about perfect for NZ audiences, including family and otherlive audiences down at the viaduct.

“Off-shore in America’s Cup sailing is always somewhere east of NZ, which means we get it earlier in the day- very early if it is in Europe. Comparisons with TV, etc, viewing for previous, off-shore Cups might be useful.”

Council's contentious $92m 'already planned works'

The news of the $92m spent on “additional planned works” came down in paragraph 15 of Auckland Unlimited’s – the CCO branch of Auckland Council that oversaw tourism and infrastructure for AC36 – cost benefit report summary press release on Tuesday.

These works were “set to take place in the city to reduce future disruption and duplication of efforts. The 36th America’s Cup Impact Evaluation by Fresh Info estimates that delivering this infrastructure early will result in future savings of $67m.”

The “planned projects” listed at $92m were broken down by Auckland Unlimited as individually costing $6.5m for Wynyard Wharf rehabilitation, $19.9m for Hobson Wharf wave panels, $17.5m for a new superyacht berthing facility and $10m for consenting and early works.

It also cost $3m for CCTV upgrades, the relocation of the fishing fleet and toilet upgrades to Silo playground and Bascule Bridge.

Other “associated capital and project team costs” were priced at $6m and utilities and services were priced at $11.2m.

Relocating the Sealink car ferry from Wynyard Wharf for the competing syndicates’ team bases also cost $17.9m according to Auckland Unlimited.

Auckland Council director infrastructure and environmental services Barry Potter assured “these projects had already been identified and approved in the council’s 10-year budget”.

However, it should be noted this 10-year budget was devised in 2018 – after Auckland secured AC36 in 2021.

Auckland councillor and Planning Committee chairman Chris Darby holds reservations that many of the auxiliary projects listed are genuine legacy infrastructure for the city.

“One of the things that popped up there was the suggestion that the bringing forward of the superyacht berths was part of that,” Darby said.

“So look, we never had a plan to provide for superyacht berths. That might have been a concept but there was never any previous plan to be providing boat storage for elite sailors. That was an additional – that came in due to the America’s Cup. In fact there was quite a lot of controversy.

“There was a lot of discussion from my colleagues and myself who raised very serious concerns about pouring money into what is effectively a parking lot for the uber wealthy in what is freely navigable public waters as well.”

In contrast, Potter says the city’s investment in superyacht infrastructure had led to a $100m development agreement with Orams boat yard, and been “critical to ensure New Zealand keeps pace with its competitors as both a producer of quality marine products and technology, and as a destination for refit and repair, boat building and cruising”.

But an anonymous source told the Herald that Sanford fisheries – relocated as part of the fishing fleet off Wynyard Wharf – had no intention of leaving the location prior to AC36 preparation, and they held an “indefinite lease” for the location.

“Relocation of the fishing fleet, really? No, I don’t believe that, and the same with Sealink,” a source within Auckland Council told the Herald.

“Neither of those two things needed to happen without the America’s Cup, and you could argue that they were completely unnecessary.

“Relocation of the fishing fleet, that’s definitely America’s Cup – It’s a cost [not a planned project] because those guys had leases and they run a business. Sanford and as far as I know they were going to be there for the foreseeable [future], then they got booted out. Relocation of Sealink is the kind of thing that wouldn’t have happened without the America’s Cup.”

An Auckland Council Panuku Development report from January 2018 also explicitly states that removal of SeaLink is to “facilitate the America’s Cup base infrastructure requirements”.

“The applicant has consulted with Sealink and the Fishing Industry and sought expert advice on the operational requirements and optimal layout of the new facility. Sealink has provided a letter of support. Discussions with the fishing industry are ongoing,” the report says.

A statement from Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s office, confirmed that $100m worth of “auxiliary works” was approved in the 10-year Budget 2018-2021.

“Many of these projects were planned for later in the decade but were brought forward in addition to some early scoping and preliminary works. This additional expenditure was discussed and signalled to the governing body and has been referred to in the media,” a spokesman for the mayor said.

However, councillor Darby also has a major issue with the claim in the Fresh Info independent report that the fast-tracking of $92m of “already planned projects … will result in future savings of $67m”.

“Look, you’ll always come across that, that is just a usual line,” Darby said.

“Basically of course, if you spend your money today rather than in years to come you will have to be dealing with inflationary pressures and construction indices, all of that, but if that money is spent elsewhere the same benefits would accrue, wouldn’t they?

“So I don’t put a lot of weight on that. You’ve got to think, what would the outcomes have been if we had not brought forward that spend. What would the town centre of Papakura possibly look like? Or Henderson?”

The route back into the balance sheet black for New Zealand and the America's Cup

The final conclusion in the Fresh Info independent cost benefit report was not surprising.

“It is reasonable to expect the net benefit of hosting a future America’s Cup to be materially higher if considered on a stand-alone basis for two main reasons,” the report said.

The first reason was: “The enabling infrastructure has been built and paid for. A future evaluation is therefore likely to be based on lower levels of government investment than the AC36 evaluation.

The second: “Higher levels of international visitation are likely as Covid-19 border restrictions ease. The benefits of hosting a future America’s Cup are therefore expected to be higher than those observed for AC36.”

As Auckland Mayor Goff – and numerous councillors who approved the now $215.2m investment in AC36 – said the week the exclusive negotiation period for AC37 ended in June: “Auckland was anticipating that the city and its businesses would get a second return on this investment, particularly after Covid prevented the positive economic impact of overseas visitors, and the boost superyacht refittings would have given to the maritime industry,” Goff said.

The spend on the infrastructure was always expected to be for numerous Cups before Dalton began to court overseas investors in December 2020.

However, two America’s Cup insiders have told the Herald that Auckland is still a legitimate third in the running for retaining the America’s Cup behind two players in Europe and the Middle East.

Efforts to find international backers have also been made by Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) Commodore Aaron Young who in early July sent an email to members canvassing fundraising support from wealthy locals to keep the Cup on New Zealand shores.

Young told the Herald he was confident that a returned America’s Cup in 2023/34 could recoup the $293m loss from the 2021 event.

“Look I’m not an economist but like every New Zealander you’d hope to think so and looking at past history of what the America’s Cup has brought to the country … I think I read something recently it’s basically $500m per event I think in 2000 and 2003 so you’d have to anticipate that there’s that again.”

Young has also had conversations with both local and international billionaires who have expressed interest in keeping the America’s Cup in New Zealand.

“There are a couple of local New Zealanders who have expressed interest. I can’t say names – the reason is there’s no deal done. There’s nothing in concrete,” Young said.

“What I’ve talked about there is billionaires from various countries. Not just New Zealand wealth, there’s actually individuals, billionaires, who have an interest in potentially helping the event stay I guess where they would like to see it.

“For example a superyacht owner may wish to come to New Zealand and that just might be a bucket list thing to do.

“We’re dealing with a different level of wealth. They’re all over the place to be honest. There’s not one group of nationality that’s in or out. It’s all over the place, which is pretty positive and I guess surprising in a way.”

The Herald also understands there is an effort brewing among Auckland yachting circles to get an international grant of some description to keep AC37 in Auckland. But this has been described by one source as “fanciful”.

An America’s Cup insider told the Herald they believed the overseas candidates are about to be narrowed down to two plus Auckland – which “is not being excluded”.

“Yes, absolutely -the door is still open [to Auckland],” the source said.

“The Government’s put its offer on the table. I mean if they said ‘give us another million dollars it’s yours’ they probably would take the deal – but they are basically testing the market overseas.

“Look I don’t think there is a huge bundle of cash overseas, I think they are going through a process at the moment trying to tie up as much money as they can.

“If they come back to Auckland, it’s clear the overseas bids haven’t been as successful as what Auckland’s offering, but if they do come back, they are going to have to reassess what the America’s Cup’s going to look like in a much-reduced financial situation.”

The insider said Team NZ’s appointed agent for overseas negotiations is actually only requesting $35-40m directly to Team NZ and another $45-50m to run the event itself.

RNZYS Commodore Young also believed the $200m price tag that was rumoured to be what Team NZ wanted was much inflated.

But the $99m bid which the Government offered Team NZ to keep AC37 in Auckland was widely rumoured to only be about $30m-odd in actual cash, once the infrastructure benefits had been accounted for.

“I think after this coming Olympics in Tokyo, it will make the America’s Cup look positively cheap – all sports is facing this economic fall-out from Covid,” the America’s Cup insider said.

“The America’s Cup is no different and neither is the Olympics so I don’t think you can put the red ink at anyone’s door, it’s just one of those things that would have been nice to be insured against, if anyone could have afforded to insure it back in 2017.”

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