The economics of the America’s Cup – did we lose or win?

By Sam Richardson 28/03/2014

Six months ago Team New Zealand lost the America’s Cup Oracle defended the America’s Cup in an historic comeback. Since then, we’ve had a post-mortem of the event, and today we’ve heard from an independent report into the economic outcomes of the Government’s investment into the unsuccessful Team New Zealand challenge off San Francisco. It’s being regarded by the Minister for Economic Development as money well spent. Click here for the reports themselves from the MED website.

“The economic benefit from our investment in Team New Zealand is considerable. From a $36 million investment, the evaluation shows a total estimated impact of $87 million to the New Zealand economy,” Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce says.

The Government’s share of the total Team NZ revenues of approximately $180m was 20 percent (it was capped at $36 million), with 66 percent coming from overseas. The report found that the total outcome of $87 million to the New Zealand economy would not have occurred without the Government’s involvement.

I’m not going to question the final point – it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the Government’s contribution was pivotal to the challenge – but then, one could also argue that it wouldn’t have happened without the overseas or private domestic funding either. That being said, however, there are two aspects of this report that do require challenging.
First, attributing the entire economic impact of a project to a 20 percent contribution is something I (and many others) have a real problem with. You could just as easily credit the economic impact figure of $87 million to the overseas funding (and you could do so with confidence, as it is ‘new money’ and thus more likely to be beneficial to the New Zealand economy) more than the Government’s investment. Still, it is not an easy issue to resolve. It’s not as easy as saying that because the Government contributed 20 percent means it should be ‘credited’ with 20% of the economic impact. The combination of public and private funding makes attributing the economic impact to one or the other parts problematic. A more accurate statement would be that the entire project (regardless of where the money came from) generated $87 million in impacts. After all, the tax revenues generated by Team New Zealand were between $38 and $40 million.  
The second issue is the absence of opportunity costs of public funding in the report, which would help us to determine to what extent the $87 million impact be considered an economic benefit, and therefore money well spent. If there was no Team New Zealand, would nothing have happened? Of course not – life (and the economy) would have continued to tick away as per usual. $36 million of taxpayers money went into this campaign. Public funding has alternative uses, which should at the very least be considered as part of an objective analysis. If there was no Team New Zealand, what would have happened to the $36 million in taxpayer funding that was invested there? Chances are it would have gone to some other worthy recipient, for example the health sector or the education sector. In order to determine whether the $36 million spent on the America’s Cup was money well spent, we need to know what $36 million would do when put to an alternative use. If the $36 million for Team New Zealand returned a higher impact than, say, paying each and every New Zealander $8 as compensation for there being no Team New Zealand, then it might have been money well spent. Determining what the appropriate alternative use for $36 million is the subject of debate – and my example above is very much tongue in cheek – but one thing is for sure: it is certainly not nothing. 
$87 million is the economic impact with no alternative use of public (and other) funds. Is it realistic to attribute this as a benefit? I’ll let you be the judge of that.