Why the America’s Cup pushes our patriotic buttons

05 June 2017

It's a rich man's game. A billionaire's sport. Of no interest to the little guy and therefore a waste of money. Until the starter's gun fires. 

That's when the little guy goes out and spends too much money on an Emirates Team New Zealand shirt, and gets up at 5am to see the America's Cup racing. 

How is this most controversial of sports, one that has a reputation of spending as much time in the courtroom as on the water, capable of drawing in a nation when it comes down to the actual event? An event that in the lead-up has half the country frothing at what a waste of time it is and the other half pleading for any sort of coverage. 

Are we having our patriotic buttons pushed?  

It is all about nationalism, says Professor Toni Bruce, who is an expert in the sociology of sport at the University of Auckland. The boat decorated with the logos of multi-nationals is called Aotearoa New Zealand. It's mostly crewed by Kiwi sailors, more nationalistic than the other five teams. It uses breakthrough technology invented here. The TV graphics - also largely developed in New Zealand - mean everyone can now understand what's going on. The livery with its silver fern and southern cross is more identifiable with the country than even the national flag. And it's a competition we could win by battling the big guns - we've done it before. Twice. 

It's also about the spectacle. Faster boats, shorter races, incredible technology - sailing has gone the way of the short attention span much like rugby (sevens), cricket (five day to one day to T20 matches) netball (fast five) and league (nines). Close to a million New Zealanders watched the final, heartbreaking, America's Cup race in 2013 but the television landscape has changed since then and it remains to be seen if the switch to exclusive SkyTV live coverage sparks a rush on subscriptions or a drop in audience numbers. 

Bruce says the big thing that may dent the Cup's popularity this year (other than Team NZ losing, in which case she predicts an immediate loss in interest) is the lack of free to air television coverage. Sky customers are handing back their decoders in droves (New Zealanders hate being gouged, says Bruce) and there will be a scramble to find other ways to see it. In 2013 they found TVNZ's online streaming, but that's not happening this time. Bruce said Sky's swallowing up of rugby and netball in this country caused interest in both sports to drop - it's likely the same thing will happen here. But she also believes fans will find a way, using other methods. "Some people with the Rugby World Cup were streaming the BBC or other countries' feeds." There will be a large swathe of people who, as the action heats up, will be determined to get to a screen one way or another. 

Radio Sport has live coverage but it's commentary only - as descriptive as sailing guru Peter Montgomery is, it's not the same as seeing a foiling AC50 catamaran nose-diving into Bermuda's Great Sound. The race is also being tracked by Virtual Eye with an America's Cup app - technically exciting and very informative but not the real thing.

Why we're hooked

"The America's Cup has very much been sold to us the 'little nation at the bottom of the South Pacific going up against the big guns'," said Bruce. "And that meant doing it in that number eight wire style ... we are people who come up with ingenious solutions, and who work hard. Winning the event was the turning point with Peter Blake in 1995, then holding the cup. Then all that development went into the Auckland waterfront and it became something that was part of re-building Auckland. It also tapped into our international boat building capacity, and lifted the visibility of how exceptional our - male - sailors are." 

Women being conspicuously absent from the crews, not even featuring in roles that don't require pure power, such as helmspeople or tactitians. "It would be nice to lead the way," said Bruce. "The dominance of men in this event is so natural that it didn't even occur to me that there was an absence of women. Our women do really well in Olympic events, but their competence doesn't necessarily translate into this arena. I would think that the syndicate that's the first to do that would get a lot of attention: particularly if they did well." (Team NZ has five women in their team of 90-odd people, some of them designers.)

Bruce suggests participation in the sport could be another reason Kiwis tune in to the races. "New Zealand has high rates of people who sail," she said. "But we also tend to get behind any sporting team that does well on the international stage. It is a sport for the wealthy but it's not all about that." The syndicates, she points out, have tapped into nationalistic fervour. "We've been educated to think it's our team." That loyalty kicked off with the Blake campaign. "We still adore Peter Blake because not only did he win for New Zealand but he always identified nationalism as one of the key components of what he was doing. Russell Coutts I don't think understood what the fallout would be when he left Team New Zealand. He said we could build a dynasty and keep doing this, then he jumped ship for a better offer. We could have forgiven him for doing that - but what couldn't be forgiven was that he went and raced against his own nation, and beat us. That's how he got constructed as a traitor and a mercenary. We had just got seduced into thinking this was about a national team."

Loyalty to the sport took a blow after that, Bruce believes. "The reality is these are professional sportsmen in a wealthy sport; they are national teams but they are not really national representatives. I think that's why the interest goes up once the racing starts.

"Suddenly we forget all these things that cause conflict and we say 'Go New Zealand'.

"New Zealanders more than most other countries put national pride in sport because there are not many other places in which we shine on the world stage." Bruce believes that is changing, with a burgeoning film industry and musicians gaining international attention, but she said in the past, coverage of sporting contests was the only reflection of our own people on television. "New Zealand's identity is insecure so we are always looking for places where we can say 'Look - we're doing well'." She sees this discomfort as a positive sign - a recognition that we are migrants and that Māori were here first. "In other colonised nations the native peoples were so overwhelmed that the colonists don't even factor in that information. I think pākehā New Zealanders' identity reflects that we understand that .. and that it's a relationship that needs to be worked on. We should embrace that, it's a productive place to work. We're thinking about what being a New Zealander is all about. It's a kind of fundamental insecurity in the pākehā New Zealand identity that creates a space where we really want to celebrate New Zealanders who are doing well internationally. (And why) we really don't care about the America's Cup except when we are racing."

Dr Toni Bruce is a professor in the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy, at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education and Social Work.

Used with permission from Newsroom, Why the America's Cup pushes our patriotic buttons published on Monday 5 June 2017.