Cuphysteria hits New Zealand

Cuphysteria hits New Zealand

WELLINGTON - Agence France-Presse
Cuphysteria hits New Zealand

Fans cheer from the shore after Emirates Team New Zealand raced against Oracle Team USA in Race 10 of the 34th America’s Cup yacht sailing. REUTERS photo

With Emirates Team New Zealand sitting on the verge of regaining the America’s Cup, the country’s usual obsession with rugby has been overtaken by yachting mania.

In the first-to-nine finals series being sailed in San Francisco Bay, Team New Zealand holds a commanding 7-1 lead over holders Oracle Team USA.

And the Kiwis could claim the 162-year-old trophy for only the third time early Wednesday New Zealand time, when the next two races are scheduled.

Headlines have proclaimed that the New Zealand team is “Storming Home”, economists have predicted a NZ$500 million (US$410) windfall, and fans are buying up thousands of lucky red socks while dubbing sport’s oldest active trophy as “New Zealand’s Cup”.

Unlike New Zealand’s year-round obsession with rugby union, the love affair with yachting and the America’s Cup hibernates for long periods.

Yachting fever exploded

But with New Zealand on the verge of claiming “the Auld Mug” -- as the silver ewer is affectionately known -- for the first time in 10 years, yachting fever has exploded.

With the races being sailed between 8:00am and 10:00am New Zealand time (2000-2200 GMTTuesday), workers have been delaying the start to their day to watch the competition.

But employers are not complaining and hotels are happy to give guests a late check out.

Fans are snapping up red socks, which were worn by the late Sir Peter Blake as “lucky charms” when he headed New Zealand’s first successful America’s Cup campaign in 1995 and which are now seen as a show of team support.

“Today we had sold around 20,000 and when I came in this morning there were 300 more orders,” Shelley Campbell, the chief executive of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, told AFP Tuesday.

“We’ve had to call in more volunteers to ship them out. It’s been mounting in the last couple of days. It seems everyone wants to get behind it.” More than 925,000 people, about 20 percent of New Zealand’s population, watched the racing on Sunday while tens of thousands more listened to radio commentaries or watched online.

Economic side of yachting open to debates

By comparison, only 512,300 watched the All Blacks beat arch rivals South Africa 29-15 the previous evening in a battle between the top two rugby teams in the world.

“New Zealanders are completely gripped by the America’s Cup,” Television New Zealand head of television, Jeff Latch, said.

“Record numbers tuned into TV One’s coverage on Sunday morning, close to a million people, which was over three quarters of those watching TV at that time.” The New Zealand government injected NZ$36 million into Team New Zealand’s NZ$130 million campaign and although they need two more wins to claim victory, there is already talk about financial support for a defence.

Relevant ministries have started assessing how big the contribution should be with Prime Minister John Key talking up benefits to New Zealand, particularly in tourism. But Key added it would be “much more difficult” to continue funding the team if they failed to win.

However, according to the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER), it was debatable whether some of the estimated economic benefits would emerge as reality.

“The economic benefit numbers being touted by some economists I see is half a billion dollars... it’s probably going to be a tenth of that,” NZIER principal economist Shamubeel Eaqub told the New Zealand Herald.

As Cup fever grips the nation, the Herald has printed a list of things to do to stay calm if the anxiety of watching Team New Zealand get to nine wins becomes too much.

They range from starting the day with a stress-reducing asparagus omelette to simply turning off the television.

The America’s Cup mania, which is particularly intense in Auckland where any defence would be held, is a far cry from when New Zealand began preparing for the challenge in 2011.

The website polled readers then on whether NZ$36 million of taxpayer funding was money well spent -- just over 72 per cent voted no.