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Kane Williamson raising the bat. (Getty Images)
Kane Williamson raising the bat. (Getty Images)

MediaDecember 5, 2020

Is watching cricket at the pub a thing of the past?

Kane Williamson raising the bat. (Getty Images)
Kane Williamson raising the bat. (Getty Images)

With venues slow to pick up Spark Sport, New Zealand cricket fans might have trouble finding places showing the games. Alex Braae reports.

For decades, any sports bar worth the name will have had a Sky Sports subscription. Long hazy days at the pub could be spent watching a test match slowly unfold, punctuated by regular Black Caps batting collapses. 

For many local sports fans, the summer of cricket is their greatest sporting pleasure. But since the broadcast rights went to Spark Sport for a six-year term, many won’t be able to go out to their regular spots to watch it. 

Spark Sport has a venue problem, with far fewer commercial premises taking up subscriptions to their service. That in turn means cricket in New Zealand has a coverage problem, with less ability to reach casual fans, and less visibility for the sport. 

Spark Sport has added a considerable number of codes to their offering, including some of the biggest international sporting competitions in the world. That includes the NBA, the NFL, and some major events in motorsport, tennis and cycling. That all follows a launch year that included broadcasting the Rugby World Cup, arguably the most important single event on the New Zealand sporting calendar.

Spark Sport’s purchase of the cricket rights reflected longstanding changes in how people view sport. Increasingly, fans tend to stream on a device rather than watch on a TV, and for cricket especially, access to highlights packages on demand is a big draw.

A deal was done for the World Cup that allowed commercial premises with Sky subscriptions to show games, on the basis that otherwise many fans would miss out. There has been little indication the deal will be offered again in the future. 

Sky already has a cricket offering, in the form of some major international series, and tournaments like the Big Bash in Australia. “There’s no deal in place with Spark at this juncture to meet the needs of Sky’s business customer base regarding domestic cricket,” said a Sky spokesperson. Spark also confirmed that nothing in this area was being worked on. 

Ian Bishop doing the pitch report in Hamilton on Spark Sport (Screenshot)

The Spinoff conducted an informal survey of sports bars around the country to get a sense of how many would have the cricket on. The results painted a troubled picture of cricket coverage, among the sorts of venues people would naturally gravitate towards for live sport.

Out of 10 that were contacted, four were unequivocal that they had a Spark Sport subscription, and that the test would be on – at least when the rain cleared up a bit. One place in Christchurch had a subscription, but the game wasn’t on at the time because everyone had forgotten about it. 

Two were unsure, with bar staff unable to say whether or not they’d be playing the cricket. One of those venues in Wellington knew they had one for the Rugby World Cup last year, but thought the subscription might have lapsed since then. 

Four out of the 10 gave a flat answer of no. A bar owner in Tauranga said he didn’t want one either, while the others just said they didn’t have it. 

For venues, pay TV subscriptions are effectively an investment – pay a premium to have the game on, and make it back in beer sales to punters. Many have already made an investment in Sky in the first place – the broadcaster estimates it reaches about 85% of taverns, and 95% of hotel and motel rooms around the country. Spark Sport would not give figures about its market penetration. 

In a statement, a Spark Sport spokesperson said that an increasing number of commercial premises are taking up subscriptions, and it wasn’t necessarily concerned about that happening after the season had started.

“It mirrors what we see in our wider customer base where people sign up late to get amongst the action. We’re confident we will have good coverage across commercial venues as we head into the peak of summer,” said the spokesperson. 

But the customers of those venues who were slow to sign up will have missed some remarkable moments. There’d be no nipping down to the pub on a Friday afternoon in the hope of seeing Kane Williamson score a third double century, if there was no screen at the pub to watch it on. 

Perhaps the most worrying part of the lack of venue coverage for cricket is that the Spark Sport product is sound. They’ve assembled an excellent commentary team who fill the space sparingly. The camerawork and graphics don’t rely on wizardry, it’s just a clear picture that focuses on the action. And the ads are minimal. If cricket is going to survive, people need to see it presented well.

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