May 12, 1:20 AM EDT

Emirates returns as Team New Zealand's top sponsor



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Emirates returns as Team New Zealand's top sponsor

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SAN DIEGO (AP) -- America's Cup syndicate Emirates Team New Zealand finally got some good news after a rough year and a half.

Emirates airline announced Monday it will return as the team's major sponsor, which could help it reach the starting line of the challenger series in Bermuda in 2017.

In a Cup cycle full of upheaval, this is the most significant commercial sponsor to announce backing of a team.

"It's a brick in the wall but a significant one," Emirates Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton said from Auckland.

There had been speculation that Emirates might not return as the team's top sponsor, perhaps forcing the Kiwis to drop out.

Oracle Team USA, which stunned the Kiwis with a dramatic comeback to defend the America's Cup in 2013, picked Bermuda to host the 2017 regatta, causing sponsorship problems for teams and the event itself.

Emirates doesn't fly to Bermuda and thus would have no direct marketing tie-in.

"Nobody flies to Bermuda," cracked Dalton, who was among those opposed to the choice of the British territory over San Diego to host the 2017 America's Cup.

But both Emirates and Dalton said the relationship was strong enough to continue.

"They've stuck with us through thick and thin," said Dalton, who declined to provide financial details. "They're a global airline which values its relationship with this part of the world and we're their primary property in this hemisphere. They're a long-term player for us, since 2004, and decided that relationships don't just come and go. We're really lucky to keep them."

Would the Kiwis have been able to continue without Emirates?

"It would have made it a real challenge financially and it's already a challenge, and it would have sent a message we may not have been able to recover from," Dalton said.

Emirates Team New Zealand is in danger of losing its government funding because America's Cup officials pulled a qualifying regatta from Auckland during a spat over changing the size of the boats in the middle of the cycle. The Kiwis are seeking arbitration and Dalton said they won't back down.

Italian billionaire Patrizio Bertelli was so incensed about the change in boat size that he pulled Luna Rossa Challenge out of the competition.

Sir Tim Clark, the airline's president, said in a statement that the decision to renew a relationship that began in 2004 was recognition of the success of Team New Zealand in helping build the Emirates brand globally.

"Our re-commitment for the next America's Cup challenge ... is testament to the spirit, skill and strengths the team has shown," Clark said. "Our investment in Team New Zealand is one of the reasons Emirates has continued to soar in brand recognition."

Emirates Team New Zealand collapsed in the 2013 America's Cup, reaching match point and then losing eight straight races to Oracle Team USA. Earlier this year, Dean Barker was forced out as skipper and left the syndicate.

Dalton, who has sparred verbally with America's Cup boss and countryman Russell Coutts during the past few years, said the Kiwis still have to raise more money.

"We're a good bunch of battlers and there's no guarantees, but we've been down before and fought our way back," he said. "It's not insignificant that on the 20-year history of the win in San Diego, the team is strong and the longest-standing brand in the sport. We're fighters. Does it get us to the line? It's certainly a major step in the right direction and we're continuing on toward the Cup as a result."

With Coutts as skipper, Team New Zealand swept Dennis Conner in five races off San Diego 20 years ago this month to win the America's Cup for the first time.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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