Turnover ball for TV sport

The Dominion Post - - Opinion -

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.

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