Americas Cup: Paul Lewis – Inside the distasteful plot to oust Grant Dalton from Team NZ

OPINION:

So the gloves are off; Mark Dunphy wants Grant Dalton’s head.

If Dalton can’t or won’t raise the funds to hold the 37th America’s Cup in Auckland “there are others who will do it and can do it just as well or better”, according to Dunphy.

On the face of it, his takeover bid raises hope for an Auckland defence of the 37th America’s Cup – if you believe Dalton is the problem and not a world economy scarred by the pandemic, preventing him from gathering the many millions of dollars he has for every other Team New Zealand challenge and defence over 18 years.

The Dunphy Defence has a simple strategy – cut the head off the snake. It is basically a kind of corporate raid, sugar-coated in patriotism, using Team NZ’s own rationale against it: “We’ll lose it if we defend it in Auckland [in a bargain-basement regatta]; better to take it offshore and earn the resources to hold it in Auckland”.

But would Dalton’s departure matter if there is a home defence?

There are just a few teeny-weeny things. Dunphy doesn’t yet appear to have the money – and he may not even have a team to take over. If he has the people, including Sir Michael Fay, donors and the money to fund a home defence, why not name them all and make a much more public play? That kind of public push would win a lot of hearts and minds and would place Team NZ under even more pressure.

Part of the answer clearly seems to be that Dunphy might have support but not the money either. He is not a billionaire, reputedly worth about $230m; the next Cup regatta will cost about $200m per team. His financial recipe for the Cup seems based on a complex scheme involving an Auckland City trust fund, government money, private money and tax breaks. At present, Team NZ has no government money on board, the offer withdrawn. So Dunphy’s takeover would be partly financed by the taxpayer – a key gripe among a section of people who believe the America’s Cup should not be funded by government (even though other sports are).

Even if Dunphy succeeds, he likely won’t have a team, or not much of one. There are enough potential challengers out there for key Team NZ members to jump ship overseas, with all their winning knowledge – almost certainly what would happen. Kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

Maybe a big cheque would keep them here – but Dunphy & co don’t seem to have the money yet. There’s also the question of intellectual property and team members smarting over what they consider an insult. One told me: “Where was all this when we went to Bermuda on half pay [and won the Cup] because the government withdrew its money? Where was Dunphy then?”

The focus on Dalton is distasteful. Always a polarising character, he has a direct, take-no-prisoners style that does not endear him to all, his history well-populated with enemies. He’s also the guy who held this team together over the years when it (twice) looked as if collapse was imminent, plus he’s been the driver of this successful America’s Cup era.

Former Team NZ chairman Sir Stephen Tindall has made the point Dalton is independently wealthy after inheriting money and has not made a bundle out of running the team. Yet there is an ongoing, errant fixation among a small minority of the public that Dalton has benefitted from some sort of golden money tap bathing him in large amounts of Cup cash.

Of course he will have been plentifully recompensed with his CEO salary but he long ago became a target for some anonymous, down-and-dirty purveyors of false claims in social media. Even the comments from the public run underneath digital news stories involving the America’s Cup often contain (along with the usual “rich men’s playthings” and “big boys’ toys” barbs) snide references to Dalton and money. Some even seem actionable.

Add to that the fact the government offer of just under $100m for an Auckland defence actually comprised only $31m in cash (the rest in kind) for a $200m event. That largely escaped part-time Cup fans who saw only the $100m figure and immediately assumed the worst. That’s part of the environment in which this “Dalton out” move has been made.

Now all this has stirred a piece of pure America’s Cup drama which seems, regrettably, to be sailing closer to the sharp rocks of Lawyers’ Reef. The prospect of legal action to stop the Cup going offshore may be imminent, something absent since the three long years of bickering and court action that eventually saw Oracle win the Cup from Alinghi in 2010.

One of the things we can’t know is how far the tentacles of takeover might have stretched inside Team NZ. One thing is sure: in spite of this whole thing being conducted in a thin film of patriotism, trying to cut the head off the snake doesn’t seem a very Kiwi way to proceed.

Yes, CEOs are toppled, not always fairly. But they have generally overseen some kind of failure. Team NZ, last time I looked, was the holder of the America’s Cup.

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