Spark’s Su­per plan for ABs

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT - Paul Cully

Spark has sig­nalled its in­ter­est in Su­per Rugby and All Blacks tests as part of a sports stream­ing ser­vice that could cost half the price of the cheap­est cur­rent Sky sports pack­age.

The telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany took a huge step this week to be­com­ing a ri­val to Sky for do­mes­tic sports con­tent by an­nounc­ing a tie-up with NEP, the com­pany that broad­casts the NRL and AFL in Aus­tralia.

Spark’s head of sport, Jeff Latch, said that it now had ‘‘the ca­pa­bil­ity to go af­ter all sports in New Zealand, in­clud­ing rugby’’, and was on a mis­sion to make sport ‘‘ac­ces­si­ble to Ki­wis again’’.

‘‘We’ve al­ready said to any­one that’s asked us that we’re in­ter­ested in all sports rights go­ing for­ward, in­clud­ing rugby,’’ Latch said.

A suc­cess­ful Spark bid for All Blacks tests and Su­per Rugby would mean the big­gest shake-up in sports broad­cast­ing for decades.

Sky has had a long re­la­tion­ship with New Zealand Rugby, but Spark’s acquisition of the Rugby World Cup rights from World Rugby showed that the world was chang­ing, said Latch, who was TVNZ’s head of con­tent be­tween 2006-2017.

‘‘I think ev­ery­one has an eye on the fu­ture in terms of where might rugby go,’’ Latch said.

‘‘Stream­ing of sports con­tent is re­ally start­ing to gather pace around the world be­cause of the ben­e­fits it of­fers in terms of get­ting sport to con­sumers at a time, place and on a de­vice that suits them.

‘‘That was some­thing that was in World Rugby’s mind when they were talk­ing to us.’’

Spark’s am­bi­tions come at a cru­cial time for rugby broad­cast­ing rights.

The cur­rent deal for the Rugby Cham­pi­onship and Su­per Rugby ends in 2020 but San­zaar boss Andy Mari­nos told Stuff last week the or­gan­i­sa­tion wanted to put a pro­posal to broad­cast­ers ‘‘sooner rather than later’’.

Sky re­mains in a strong po­si­tion. Latch said that con­tent deals typ­i­cally gave the cur­rent broad­cast rights holder – in this case Sky – a chance to ex­tend its con­tract with NZR.

How­ever, NZR will also be aware it has to se­cure the next gen­er­a­tion of rugby fans, who are not tied to set-top box and satellite tech­nol­ogy.

Latch said the All Blacks were self-ev­i­dently still a prized me­dia as­set while Su­per Rugby was fun­da­men­tally still ap­peal­ing but faced ‘‘chal­lenges’’.

‘‘Su­per Rugby is still a very strong prod­uct,’’ said Latch, a self-con­fessed long-suf­fer­ing Blues fan.

‘‘It’s just there is now in terms of other con­tent that’s avail­able, there are chal­lenges in a very com­pet­i­tive land­scape.

‘‘I think one of the changes that has taken place in New Zealand over the last 10 years is the accessibility of Amer­i­can sports con­tent and Euro­pean sports con­tent.

‘‘All Blacks’ matches sell them­selves for a variety of rea­sons, not least one of them is that you’ve got fan­tas­tic sta­dia full of peo­ple and huge at­mos­phere, and that’s now de­liv­ered by a raft of other sports that are ac­ces­si­ble in New Zealand, and that’s the dynamic that is now play­ing out and is an in­ter­est­ing one.’’

Reach is at the heart of Spark’s strat­egy, which it sees as a pric­ing is­sue rather than a tech­nol­ogy or coverage one.

The com­pany has not yet re­leased its pric­ing plans for its sports-stream­ing ser­vices but in Aus­tralia Fox Sports has launched a sports-only stream­ing ser­vice for A$25 a month, half the price of its cheap­est pay-TV pack­age.

Asked if that was an in­tel­li­gent pric­ing model, Latch said: ‘‘I think so. If you want max­imise reach you need to be at a price point that is ac­ces­si­ble to a large num­ber of peo­ple.’’

At present, Sky bun­dles a ba­sic pack­age with Sky Sports that costs about $50 a month and has been chal­lenged by declining sub­scrip­tions as Ki­wis change their me­dia con­sump­tion habits.

Latch said: ‘‘Typ­i­cally con­tent is king and that’s what ac­tu­ally drives plat­forms but every 20-25 years there tends to be a tech­no­log­i­cal change that is im­por­tant as well’’.

Those changes meant a po­ten­tial win for sports con­sumers as con­tent be­came cheap enough to ap­peal to a larger part of the pop­u­la­tion.

‘‘That’s where we’re head­ing,’’ he said. ‘‘I think that’s achiev­able. And I think it’s go­ing to be in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful for New Zealand sports and it’s go­ing to be in­cred­i­bly valu­able for the sports rights hold­ers as well as for view­ers.’’

. . . we’re in­ter­ested in all sports rights go­ing for­ward, in­clud­ing rugby. Spark’s head of sport Jeff Latch

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