There’s been lots of coverage of triumphant Team New Zealand in Bermuda, and lots of it came courtesy of the organisers, the teams and their sponsors. RNZ’s man at the Cup tells Mediawatch it calls into question the future of real journalism at big sports events.
In what he called “A love song to Team New Zealand” the New Zealand Herald's Dylan Cleaver gave its corporate sponsors a shout-out:
The sponsors deserve their moment in the sea - and sun. So grab yourself a Nespresso and a Steinlager. Check your Omega watch and see you've hit beer o'clock . . .
“We love the fact Team NZ didn't whore themselves to Oracle Team USA in the hope of crumbs from Larry Ellison's well-laden table," he added.
But our media didn't always take the same principled position with the big money outfits bankrolling the America's Cup.
Alongside reports from chief sports reporter Dana Johannsen, who was in Bermuda for a month, the Herald also ran columns and video from Bermuda by veteran yachting reporter Martin Tasker and sailing pundit Peter Lester.
Those two men are familiar faces from TVNZ in years past, but this time it was logos of team New Zealand sponsor Toyota on their outfits and their videos. Toyota covered the cost of bringing them to Bermuda to create online content.
Race footage supplied by Team New Zealand itself was also widely used by other media, including RNZ.
Also reporting from Bermuda was TVNZ weather presenter Sam Wallace, who is also a radio host at The Hits. He was not at the Cup as a reporter or presenter, but as an ambassador for coffee brand Nespresso - another TNZ sponsor.
“Nespresso have asked me to go . . . as I am a nerd who can film, file and edit the coverage for their social media platforms and their relationship with Emirates Team NZ,” Sam Wallace told the Herald before flying to Bermuda.
Nespresso got a lot of mileage out of the multi-tasking Sam Wallace.
The company posted a series of his Bermuda videos on Facebook, in which he wears a Nespresso outfit and makes quite a lot of the sponsor’s product.
TVNZ's Seven Sharp also aired his upbeat reports from Bermuda in prime time. Some of these were almost identical to the videos he shot for Nespresso, but without the most obvious product placement.
In one Seven Sharp report Sam Wallace chatted to a beach resort barman about a local rum cocktail. In the version for Nespresso, Sam Wallace startled the barman by tipping the sponsor’s coffee into the cocktail - and pronouncing it delicious.
So now that the teams and their sponsors are hiring presenters to create content which news media can use for free, does the Americas Cup need bona fide journalists at all any more?
RNZ’s reporter in Bermuda, Tod Niall, has covered every America’s Cup since the year 2000. He noticed the PR teams of the competitors and sponsors were bigger and busier than ever before in Bermuda.
Tom Webb is the communications manage for the America's Cup Event Authority, the outfit the holder Oracle put together to run the media operations.
“It does need active, present news media that want to find out stories. Social media opens up direct communication with the public but there is enormous value in the credibility the media have. That hasn’t changed,” said Tom Webb.
"If a brand is running its own communications, it is not going to interrogate or be inquisitive," he said.
"The media's job is to ask the difficult questions which create the most interesting stories. It is incredibly valuable to have them doing that. To try and replace that would be missing the point," he said.
But while he said the sponsor's media output merely complemented that of the news media, Todd Niall was not so sure.
He told Mediawatch there were far fewer journalists in Bermuda than past Cup regattas, especially in early stages. Apart from himself, the Herald's Dana Johannsen and Richard Gladwell from Sailing World were the only New Zealand journalists covering the challengers series.
Partly it was the cost that kept others away, he said, but media companies now knew they had alternative sources.
“There is so much more information and content being provided by the event and by the teams themselves that you can get away with covering it without being there,“ he said, noting that Fairfax Media sent no-one at all.
The Toyota media output was the most sophisticated operation he has seen so far at an America's Cup regatta.
"This was an in-house media operation inside Team New Zealand, entirely funded by Toyota,“ he said.
“There was very limited access to Team New Zealand despite having got ourselves here, while at the same time Toyota was putting out interviews with people we didn't get to talk to, and images of things we were not allowed to film or photograph," he said.
Todd Niall said he was able to talk to TNZ members just three times during the entire event.
"We had no access to Grant Dalton at all until he did two or three minutes moving down the media line at the end because that's a thing the event organised," he said.
"It operated like a fortress," he said.
"It was galling when you saw the people you wanted access to being interviewed and projected on the sponsors' Facebook pages or through videos provided in a commercial arrangement, bypassing the media which represent the public," he told Mediawatch.
Todd Niall said it raised a crucial question for editors.
“Has it shifted the equation for the news media who may say: 'Hang on. Why are we spending our own money going there if we can run this stuff and we don't mind having the sponsor’s logo on it?'
"People in the sports marketing business will be having a close look at this, and how it might operate for other major sporting events," he said.