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Has Cork missed the boat on Americas Cup?

By Sam Curtin

 

Here’s a quiz question for you, what’s the oldest competition in the world? The Olympics? Wrong. The Grand National? Incorrect. The world’s oldest competition is in fact the America’s Cup, the blue ribband event of which has been held since 1851. The competition predates the modern Olympics by 45 years. Indeed, it has quite the history which Cork could be about to part of. But at what cost? Is it an opportunity of a lifetime or one better to be missed?

A quick summary of the format, each cup takes place every 3-4 years with the winners getting the unique opportunity to choose the next location for the competition to be held from a list of those who signal their interests. There are then a number of play-off races that take place a couple of years in advance of the competition in order to find out who the challenger will be to take on the defending champions in a two-week festival of sailing involving a series of races to decide the winner.

Outside of the format, the first important question to ask is how did Cork become the front runners to host the event in the first place?  The last hosts New Zealand (also winners) or Auckland to be exact, were given the choice of where to stage, Cork being known for having one of the deepest harbours in the world, along with some who you know, not what you know wheeling and dealing, found themselves at the front of the line. Valencia appeared to be its only challenger to host the event which is to be staged next in 2024. The Spanish city however dropped out for reasons which will be outlined later on.

Before looking at the potential pitfalls, what could the competition bring to Cork? Firstly, the worldwide exposure it would get from such a global event. Outside of this, the largest ever sporting event held in Cork was the second boxing match between Steve Collins and Chris Eubank which was held in 1995 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. As a TV spectacle, it attracts an audience in the hundreds of millions on stations around the world. Cork could finally make good on its potential of becoming a major European city, not just in terms of infrastructure but tourism. According to the Cork Chamber of Commerce, Valencia in 2007 “recorded 2.7 million visits” with “€28 million in advertising equivalent.” They add that “a cost-benefit analysis by consultants EY has shown that it could be worth up to €500m to the economy, could generate 2,000 jobs, attract up to 2.5m visitors, generating between 9m and 11m bed nights, and be watched by an estimated 900m TV viewers globally.”

Coupled with this, Cork has an abundance of natural resources which makes for perfect sailing conditions. As a result, it is little wonder why it has been placed as the favourite to be the next host. Along with having a deep harbour, the surrounding areas such as Roberts Head and Roche’s Point make for perfect viewing. Cork has been described as being “a natural amphitheatre” for spectators and for those who want to get closer to the action could do so with ease on smaller boats and other vehicles. There is a long-held view that Ireland underutilizes its natural surroundings and this event would be a way to finalize capitalise on it.

 Finally, the most obvious one being that money talks and when it comes to the America’s Cup, it screams. Potential estimates from politicians and government advisors indicate that Cork could be in line to earn half a billion euros from the event. The knock-on effects that would have for local hotels, B&B’s, bars and other local amenities especially in Cork city, where the event would be held in the harbour which could facilitate up to 40,000 spectators each day over two weeks. Add in the various events and festival-like atmosphere that would be present in the city and all of a sudden, Cork has a new lease of life.

One of the potentially huge benefits however is also its biggest risk. The competition costs a fortune to host. EY showed found that it would take anywhere from at least at €150 -€450 million to run the competition due to the costs of the race (€50 million) and another €100 million to build infrastructure. This would include the electrification of the Cork to Cobh rail line, construction work along the docks and possible construction of a hydrogen plant in Crosshaven, which would produce fuel for boats to support the racing yachts. 

Cork also does not have a favourable history in recent times when it comes to building necessary infrastructure in order to host big events. Just take the Events Centre scandal for example. This was a project that was supposed to be built any day since 2016 it seems. Not one brick has been laid yet and so it is understandable that there would be much scepticism about the area being able to complete the required world to host one of the largest sporting events in the world. With little or no track record to speak of, it is a significant leap of fate to take.

While the potential is there to reap the reward as already mentioned, there is also a strong possibility that Cork wouldn’t even break even financially. For example, Valencia dropped out of the running as it admitted that they are still recovering financially from hosting the 2007 event which ended up costing more than they made. New Zealand also recorded losses from hosting this year’s event which was made worse due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking of which, the economy is barely treading water as a result of covid and there may simply not be enough time for it to recover for the country to experience the possible boom which comes with such an event.

Sailing also has a reputation for being an elitist sport which is reflected in the preparations for the competing teams. It costs $2 million alone for entering and requires participants to move to the host venue two or even three years in advance in order to prepare and analyse the course. Add to this that the costs of the yachts are millions more. During the 2013 Americas Cup, Oracle Team USA, backed by billionaire Larry Ellison was rumoured to have spent around $200 million on their way to the title.

Furthermore, sailing is arguably a minority sport in Ireland with relatively little publicity outside of the Olympics every four years. As a result, public opinion may not be the most positive if it sees the government willing to invest hundreds of millions of euros including taxpayers money in an event that only lasts a couple of weeks and may not even have Irish involvement. The recent scandal involving Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney and his desire to appoint Catherin Zappone to a new post does not help. Coveney, a native of Crosshaven is the brainchild behind the project and is from a sailing background himself. He sailed around the world as part of the Sail Chernobyl project in 1998.

In conclusion, according to sources within the government, it looks unlikely that Cork will get its chance to showcase itself as ‘the real capital’ in an event that would have been the largest ever to take place in the county. Perhaps there would have been more political will if Dublin was the preferred destination. it could be argued that the Irish trait of slow and indecisive decision making coupled with red tape is at fault. On the other hand, it could also be a bullet dodged in a period where nothing is uncertain and there are more pressing issues at hand such as the housing crisis.

With that in mind, will Cork fall in love with sailing or will the sport forever be consigned to being a quiz question? Only time will tell whether this project will sink or swim.

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