Turnover ball for TV sport
When the All Blacks take the field against South Africa in their opening game of the Rugby World Cup next year, a lot more than national pride will be riding on the encounter. While Steve Hansen will no doubt remain as implacable as ever, there will be sweaty palms and chewed fingernails at both Spark and Sky. For the match will be a big moment for the future of televised sport.
It will be the first big test of Spark’s live streaming service, after it confirmed it and TVNZ had secured the rights to the World Cup. Get that first All Blacks game right, and it might succeed in convincing doubtful viewers that streaming is the way ahead for sport, as it already is for TV and movies. But if there’s just one technical glitch, one cut-out in the feed, while the nation’s eyes are watching, the whole enterprise could be at risk.
If there’s a hiccup during Game of Thrones, viewers will be grumpy, but they will know the episode will soon be on again. Miss a crucial moment during a live rugby match and there could be something close to an armed revolt.
The stakes are high for Spark. At present, many viewers are put off streaming by fear it either won’t work, or they won’t know how to make it work. They remain loyal to Sky because it’s what they know and trust. It’s in Spark’s favour that ultra-fast broadband should be more widely available by September next year, but that won’t be enough to calm the nerves.
Spark has also secured rights to the World Rugby Under-20 Championship and the Rugby World Cup Sevens later this year, but it won’t be streaming those events because it won’t be ready in time. Depending on the scheduling of next year’s under-20s tournament, it could be going into the Rugby World Cup without a practice run.
As for Sky, it is doing its best to appear insouciant. But it’s hard to believe it won’t be watching with its fingers crossed that Spark will drop the ball. When reports first emerged that it had lost the World Cup rights, Sky maintained they weren’t important. Now it has acknowledged it bid ‘‘significantly more’’ than it did for the 2015 tournament. That sounds as if it thought they were important.
Sky’s viewers have not deserted it yet, but the outlook is hardly rosy. If the World Cup convinces more viewers to go down the streaming path, that poses a dilemma not just for Sky but for New Zealand Rugby. Sky has served rugby well over the years, but its subscribers are ageing, and rugby needs a competitive marketplace if it is to secure the best price for its offerings. If World Cups go online, what could be next?
The shift to an unfamiliar platform for watching sport may well be painful for many, but it’s one they will have to get used to – if not next year, then certainly soon.
They should take comfort that Spark is a Kiwi company, and the pressure will be on it to get it right. Had an international online giant won the rights, we could be sure the views of a tiny country at the bottom of the world would count for less, however good its rugby team might be.
Sky’s viewers have not deserted it yet, but the outlook is hardly rosy.