With another Govt handout looking more unlikely, Google seems an ideal sponsor for venture in tax haven

The Beach Boys got it about right. Bermuda? Bahaha! The announcement that software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA will defend the America's Cup in a tiny tax haven in the Atlantic Ocean, an island nation with a population about the size of Southland, is a joke.

It's not the first time a syndicate has chosen to host the famous sailing contest, for the world's oldest international sporting trophy, outside its home nation - but the only other team to have done so, Alinghi, at least had a decent justification: Switzerland has no coastline.

As far as the 2017 regatta is concerned, however, the decision to tack out to an eccentric British territory in the Sargasso Sea appears about as self-interested and inane as Fifa awarding hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup to the scorched desert petro-kingdom Qatar.

On the face of it, it makes the New Zealand Government's decision on whether to once again commit millions of dollars to a challenge fairly straightforward. John Key was quoted in the Herald yesterday saying the America's Cup was increasingly seen by New Zealanders as "billionaires playing with their toys", and that "turning up in Bermuda hardly helps in terms of breaking down that image".


The Prime Minister is quite right. The modern America's Cup has very often seemed like an elaborate, squillionaire game of design cat and mouse, offering a goldrush for lawyers and the occasional boat race. That perception has been offset, or outweighed, from time to time by the patriotic red-sock surges of enthusiasm, those strange weeks in which we all become fairweather fans and fleeting yachting experts; by the national heroes (Peter Blake, Dean Barker, Russell Coutts) and the pantomime villains (Dennis Conner, Jimmy Spithill, Russell Coutts), and, yes, some unforgettable, transcendental sporting moments.

But it is hard to think of a more effective way to tip the perception firmly towards that of a disconnected billionaire boys' club than staging it in Bermuda: an island paradise with an economy based almost entirely in offering a corporate tax rate of zero. Nominal home to thousands of companies, especially to faceless insurance outfits, Bermuda is a kind of make-believe place. A confected home for a confected contest. Ellison Wonderland.

Irrespective of location, the effort by Grant Dalton's Team New Zealand to get another big cheque from the Government was already sailing into a headwind. In March, Treasury advised against further taxpayer funding, judging it "poor value for money" and saying "the extent of any positive impacts from a government contribution [the $36 million put into last year's San Francisco challenge] have not been established".

The Government's skipper-in-chief, Steven Joyce, says Treasury has overlooked the possibility, or likelihood, that New Zealand would have been unable to mount a challenge without the public cash. He notes independent evaluations that show "an estimated positive impact of $87 million to the New Zealand economy". But even Joyce's enthusiasm for another go is muted. Bermuda is a long way from the west coast of the US, where New Zealand companies are able to "leverage" the competition, as he likes to put it.

As for the potential advantage to New Zealand of hosting a defence in the future, or even the carrot of some challenger preliminaries being held in Auckland, there is no real prospect of a windfall. Projections of economic advantage from hosting sporting events are a mash-up of data and fiction. Such forecasts, as Institute of Economic Research economist Shamubeel Eaqub has put it, tend to be based on "over-hyped studies that are proven to be absolute bullshit after the fact".

Team New Zealand are again claiming that government money is "absolutely critical" - they've already, indeed, been handed $5 million. They're working on a business case now to put before Captain Joyce. But not this time, surely. If the Government is to spend so many millions on boat races, it would be better off commissioning a blueprint to establish a new world sailing competition that captures some of the innovation, flair and idiosyncrasy of the America's Cup without the financial extremes and bonkers rules.

Hopefully TeamNZ can raise the funds elsewhere. I've got one idea for a perfectly matched investor: Google. Along with other digital giants, including Apple and Facebook, Google has proven its ingenuity extends beyond digital whizzery and into tax spreadsheets. Indeed, Google - which used to use the strapline "Don't be evil" - is so adept at taking advantage of legal tax loopholes that the British plan, announced in the Autumn Statement yesterday, to lump a 25 per cent levy on profits which are generated in the UK but "artificially shifted" abroad, was immediately dubbed the "Google tax".

And Google just loves Bermuda. In 2012 it channelled more than $17 billion in royalty payments to the islands, helping it to reduce even further the low tax rate it achieves by basing operations in Ireland. In New Zealand, it paid a 2013 tax bill of $227,074, on revenues of more than $10 million - but that is unlikely to include the bulk of its vast and growing Google advertising sales to NZ clients. Again, I'm with the Prime Minister on this one, when he says such a contribution is "incredibly low" and "doesn't seem logical".


So there you have it: Google Team New Zealand. Imagine those colourful letters floating above the balletic catamaran foils as they skim through the warm Bermudan waters. They must have saved heaps from finding legal ways to avoid contributing more than a few coins to annoying things like health and education in NZ. What better way to assuage any guilt than by chucking $30 million or so at Dalton and co to race in one of your favourite places? Truly, it is a match made in haven.

World Cup mascot simply baaarmy

Photo / Supplied

Speaking of absurdity in sport, New Zealand, host of next year's under-20 football World Cup, has unveiled the mascot - a black sheep called Wooliam.

"We appreciate that around the globe, New Zealand is associated with sheep, so we thought why not embrace that, but add an extra twist by making him the coolest black sheep ever - a young Kiwi with cheek and attitude?" said an official defending this abomination. Some robotic Fifa functionary added, "Wooliam is a great character who embodies NZ and its people."

Excited though I am about the tournament next year, a black sheep? A young Kiwi that is a black sheep called Wooliam? Did somebody accidentally eat a nursery rhyme? Or did they have a five-minute meeting at Fifa HQ: "So, New Zealand, what's that make you think of?" "Erm, All Blacks!" "And sheep." "That'll do it!"

At the very least they might have reanimated Shrek the sheep. Oh well. I'm confident Fifa will thoroughly inquire into the mascot decision and exonerate themselves completely. And at least it's not a hobbit.