A new free-to-access sports hub is coming to TVNZ+ on July 1st. Duncan Greive analyses what that means for the network – and for Sky.
What just happened?
Last month marked 33 years since Sky TV arrived in New Zealand, and began the process of supplanting TVNZ, previously the main sports broadcaster, and erecting the original paywall, one which over time wrapped itself around almost all live sport. Unlike in many other countries, such as Australia, there is no legal mandate for major sporting events to appear on free-to-access platforms, meaning that aside from the odd Olympics, World Cup or Sunday afternoon motor racing coverage, sport has largely disappeared from our biggest TV channels.
Next month sees the most significant change to that orthodoxy in generations. TVNZ+, the streaming platform run by our biggest state-owned media company, has announced a new “sports hub”, which will nest “live events, replays and highlights”. This has been made possible by Spark’s decision to abruptly exit the sports market, and TVNZ’s nimble swoop in to pick up its long term rights deals.
It complements what will be an extensive slate of live sport on linear television, growing out of TVNZ’s work as linear partner for Spark Sport on cricket. Crucially, while Spark could only ever view sport as tangential to its core telecommunications business, for TVNZ selling ads against content has been its sole revenue model for decades. It has also recruited Scotty Stevenson to continue the role he filled at Spark leading its sport coverage, joining the company’s head of sport Melodie Robinson as a formidable duo charged with building the presentation of the product.
How much sport do they actually have?
It’s a long way from Sky’s kaleidoscopic range, but from day one it will be far more than has been freely available since the 1990s. The centrepiece is cricket: home internationals, Super Smash, and domestic one-day finals, bundled with English cricket, beginning with the second Ashes Test.
There’s a very strong roster of women’s sport, something Sky has also emphasised in recent years. This includes WTA tennis, women’s Super League and FA Cup football, Australian netball and Ladies European Tour golf. The balance is a little less coherent, with some NFL, FIBA basketball, a bit of Northern hemisphere rugby, World Rally, MotoGP, Diamond League Athletics, along with a few marquee events like US Open tennis. The biggest hole is local content, outside of cricket. Which leads to a key question…
How do NZ sports organisations feel about this?
Colour them intrigued. You can consider the last 30 years as a giant experiment: what happens if you make the vast majority of local and international sport accessible only to the wealthiest and oldest half of New Zealand households? While correlation isn’t strictly causation, many traditionally strong New Zealand domestic sports are seeing plunging attendance and participation rates, which rightly concerns their administrators.
The prospect of TVNZ entering the sports market in a profound way will be extremely interesting from that perspective. A number of second and third tier sports earn relatively little (or even nothing) from Sky, so the prospect of having their content made more accessible will be exciting. The big cost is often the outside broadcasting trucks and commentary staff, but if TVNZ is able to commit to that – or a third party can figure out the funding piece (maybe the government, see below) – then suddenly you might have competition and a compelling argument for shifting platform for the likes of hockey, domestic football or local rugby league.
Should Sky be worried?
For the bigger professional sports, the state will likely never be able to build a plausible revenue case to match Sky’s bids, so rugby, netball and NRL are likely staying put (and some have deals signed away for years to come). Yet the experience of cricket is instructive. Since returning to free-to-air it has seen attendances rise, and the overall visibility and cultural impact of the sport change. This is not necessarily due to leaving Sky – everything from a generation of quality players to the ACC’s cult fandom has helped. But the case for splitting rights and ensuring that some games show on major free-to-air platforms is far stronger now. It should also be seen in the context of Stuff’s screening of the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup – all sports seem much more open to a creative approach to audience building than they might have been historically.
Sky will have its own research and theory of how impactful it would be for it to lose, say, some Super Rugby and netball games. It works in Australia for Foxtel, and could view free-to-air as advertising for its more complete coverage. Sky can also point to its free-to-air channel Prime, which has screened a selection of sports for decades, and has the 2023 men’s Rugby World Cup looming. But Prime is just not in most people’s consideration set and it has no streaming platform of its own. In an era of fast-declining TV ratings, and with Sky in not much more than a third of households, it might be best-placed to try and embrace a more pluralistic era, with sports rights split into tranches, rather than try and defend one which has already passed.
Should TVNZ be excited?
It’s important to note that sport rights are always rented by broadcasters – but even by those standards, TVNZ is far from committed. What happened with Spark Sport was a one-time chance at the ultimate opportunist move, but it remains unclear whether it will be the beginning of a strategic move back to sports, or simply a fun couple of years.
It is worth noting that it fits a global trend toward sport returning to free-to-air. The Phoenix Suns, home of megastar Kevin Durant, recently made headlines when they jettisoned their pay TV deal in favour of local free-to-air coverage, citing audience size as part of the justification. Most crucially, live sport attracts people to linear TV in large numbers, and is a great advertising product – there is a strong commercial rationale behind a more long-term return to sport for the last of the linear era. It has other advantages too – chiefly helping provide more men to sell ads against, given the current strong audience skew toward women at TVNZ+. Finally, there’s the long-rumoured, though not often-discussed idea of a paid streaming TVNZ product, which would make the argument for sport even more compelling.
Still, the big thing holding TVNZ back is the fact it currently has two confirmed board members and no permanent CEO. Broadcasting minister Willie Jackson has indicated he wants to see a much greater public media mandate at TVNZ, which irks some TVNZ staff who think it already fulfils that, and Jackson just needs to watch more TVNZ content.
This gets political very quickly
Does Jackson view sport as public media? That’s very much in the eye of the beholder – and the incoming board, along with the CEO it chooses. But whether sport is public media is an important question. We know sport minister Grant Robertson is a fan, but how does he feel about its relationship with TV? What about associate health minister and public health expert Ayesha Verral?
Too many ministers, surely. But sport invariably connects to multiple portfolios. Major events receive their own funding, and often precipitate large infrastructure projects. The state spends millions of dollars every year on public health messaging, and on funding productions for screens, sport could plausibly be connected to either. There’s a well-known connection between physical activity and health – the government could make an argument that funding the screening of sport on free-to-air helps keep young people out of hospital. All conjecture, sure – but TVNZ’s move into sport puts all this on the table.
The merger is dead and buried, but Willie Jackson has made it very clear that he still has big plans for TVNZ. The move into sport was a sharp tactical play from TVNZ, but whether it makes its way upstream into strategy is still far from clear. The identities of the new TVNZ board will become known within weeks – after choosing a CEO, their next big decision will be on whether to just have a couple of years of fun with their new sports rights, or consider going all-in.
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested TVNZ had rights to the US Open golf, rather than US Open tennis. The Spinoff regrets this error.