Spark Sport’s blunt message to Sky: get in the ring

After a truce as both sorted out new corporate bosses, the Sky v Spark sports war has suddenly hotted up again. Trevor McKewen had a ringside seat.

Earlier this year, the live sports viewing landscape in New Zealand suddenly got very interesting.

Then it took a twist.

Then it went quiet.

On Monday open warfare was declared again.

The story so far goes like this. Spark Sport was launched in mid-March, birthed into existence by then Spark CEO Simon Moutter and with a blunt warning to Sky that it intended to eat the complacent Kiwi king of sport broadcasting’s lunch.

The telco had just out-bid Sky for the prized Rugby World Cup 2019 rights and was promising New Zealanders a transformational viewing experience of the All Blacks, seamlessly moving from Sky’s ageing method of satellite transmission to the exciting new experience of live online streaming.

The future had arrived.

Then suddenly Moutter unexpectedly quit Spark.

His departure caught many off-guard and led to speculation on why he would bail ahead of a RWC project that was his brainchild and baby.

Meanwhile, over at Sky’s suburban Auckland headquarters in Mt Wellington, the penny had dropped about the ability of a company worth 12 times the value of Sky on the sharemarket to do exactly what it was threatening.

Out went veteran chief executive John Fellett and in came Brit Martin Stewart. Very soon (less than a day into Stewart’s on-site arrival in fact), long-time Sky director of sport Richard Last also exited.

New SKY NZ CEO Martin Stewart

Since that day, which was about a month ahead of Spark Sport’s launch, Stewart has been on an urgent mission to transform Sky in everything from attitude to product range – while also remodel itself into a streaming provider to offset Spark’s strategy.

Stewart has driven an enormous Sky makeover involving buying more rights and sponsoring the likes of the Kiwis league team, basketball’s Breakers and netball’s Silver Ferns, and creating plans for sports news services and more shows and documentaries.

Meanwhile, Spark went quiet.

Other than managing the inevitable PR challenge of everything from Chorus revealing a RWC broadband connection jam to the “bugs” that lowered Spark’s live sports app at inappropriate times April and June, the telco has concentrated on not giving fuel to critics predicting a disaster akin to the ill-fated Aussie telco Optus and its streaming failure around last year’s men’s football World Cup.

But what it hasn’t been able to contain is whispering in Moutter’s wake that his successor Jolie Hudson and some on the Spark Board were not strong supporters of his belief that sport was the Kiwi battlefield Spark needed to win. Instead, the gossip says, their focus is on entertainment, where Sky is pitted against global behemoths like Amazon, Apple, YouTube and Netflix.

Whether it was that only 75 days remained before the RWC kicks off, or that Spark felt it was time to make a public statement on its commitment to Kiwi sport, the telco gathered half a dozen or more technically-minded and savvy commentators and journalists (including me) to meet at their Auckland CBD headquarters on Monday.

The primary purpose was to explain how they were ensuring their World Cup coverage wasn’t going to be a colossal fuck-up of Optus proportions. They did a pretty good job on that score. It quickly became apparent to even a tech-phobic baby boomer like me that Spark is putting in inordinate amounts of effort into delivering a breakthrough way of viewing sport. More power to them.

I figure most Spinoff readers are more interested in what a Sky v Spark war practically means for them than how Spark are investing in “edge nodes” to ensure their system doesn’t fail (although here’s an explainer if you want one).

The briefing was fronted by industry veteran and Spark Sport boss Jeff Latch, who has been around long enough to have realised the event was going to come with some pesky questions about bigger issues than technical challenges and support systems.

What would he say, then? Would we see a statement of intent over sport? Is Spark in it for the long run against Sky?

Spark Sport head Jeff Latch (supplied)

Latch has the hawkish facial features of an army general. He set them resolutely and confidently on Monday and delivered a clear message to Sky: “Get in the ring ‘cos Spark is definitely up for the fight.”

The briefing began gently enough before that proclamation. On the RWC itself and the doubts about Spark’s promise of a smooth service, Latch had the reasonable defence that there are going to be complainers no matter how well Spark handles the project. They will be the “laggards” who leave it to the last moment to sign up, have never streamed before and will angrily storm the help desk hours before a big match. They can’t be pleased.

Hard to disagree.

Spark also has a strong safety blanket in place thanks to the TVNZ partnership on the tournament. TVNZ has almost certainly contributed a minor share of the rights cheque. But it has enormous leverage as the fireman under the acrobat’s net if Spark’s streaming plan buckles under the strain of big number accessing live All Blacks coverage.

TVNZ will screen 12 matches of the 26 tournament matches free to air. There will be one-hour delayed coverage of all of New Zealand’s pool matches and their quarter final, and live coverage of both semis and the final.

At the briefing there was a relaxed admission from Latch that he welcomed the “heavy lifting” TVNZ will provide, particularly at the business end of the tournament. He accepted the reality that many New Zealanders are going to find this new-fangled streaming thing all too hard, leave it too late and will almost certainly watch the tournament exclusively on TVNZ, grudgingly opting to put up with occasional one-hour delays here and there as long as they can watch the All Blacks live in the final.

Nor is he expecting to hit the maximum 500,000 live streams a game that he says Spark’s independent streaming system is equipped to take before straining at the edges. He’d love it if it did, but he’s not expecting it. The closest it will come to happening is the All Blacks’ opening pool match against South Africa on September 21 and which is delayed on TVNZ. Even then, Latch expressed confidence the system will cope.

That leaves him dealing largely with ensuring the hardcore rugby audience and streaming converts who buy his Tournament Pass come out the other end with a “that wasn’t so bad, in fact it was quite good” experience. If so, Spark will have achieved its primary goal of using the RWC as a catalyst for a significant shift towards streaming as the preferred method over satellite transmission for watching live sport.

The faster that transition happens, the stronger Spark’s position becomes because it will encourage RWC subscribers to stay with them beyond the tournament, while also attracting new viewers.

It was about this time the briefing got more interesting. So what is Spark going to do after the RWC? Where are the signs our national telco is in it for the long haul? In a nutshell, is the Sky v Sport war going to continue beyond October?

Latch left no doubt about Spark’s intention. The former TVNZ executive talked about having a 60-strong team devoted to the cause and an obsessive determination to feature as a major player for high value rights beyond RWC 2019.

He definitely wanted “tier one” rights, especially around cricket and rugby, he said. One suspects the NRL is on his radar too. He was interested in long-term rights rather than one-offs which is why it was likely Spark would pass on the Melbourne Boxing Day cricket test between the Aussies and Black Caps and concentrate on events that run for weeks and months rather than days.

Not only that but once the RWC was behind it, Spark intended to step up its sports offering with further local live sport productions (the company received kudos for the successful and slick one-off broadcast of a live Auckland schools match between Kings and Grammar in May) and studio-based shows.

There was the occasional thrust and parry against Spark’s rival. Sky was only putting more delayed sport on its Prime free-to-air channel because of Spark Sport’s emergence, he said, but even then they’re not putting enough there.

But there was also acknowledgement that a Sky v Spark Sport war is good for sports fans. Latch noted that Sky’s pricing has dropped around all of its products since Spark’s came on the scene. He wondered aloud whether Sky will be bold enough to take the next logical step and “unbundle” its sports offering from its entertainment options.

Another issue raised was “fragmentation” and the risk that Sky and Spark would actually push up the costs of viewing live sport by creating a scenario where fans have to subscribe to multiple providers to get their fix across a range of sports.

Fragmentation was a “reality of the new market”, replied Latch, and would force more productive partnerships with other media players. The consumer would still ultimately win. He also felt Spark had an advantage in providing a “freemium” strategy where some content could be accessed at no cost compared to Sky’s paywall mentality.

It all has the makings of a decent fracas.

Latch acknowledged sports rights holders would greet a Sky-Spark battle with enthusiasm and that increased rights fees were a probability. But he noted that NZ sports bodies increasingly had different drivers to their international counterparts who were mostly motivated by money. The dark years dealing with an obsessive Sky and with all content behind a paywall that limited audiences had sobered many in the industry, he observed, in a nice jab at his rival. Sports were now looking for partnerships with a degree of free content delivery as well as a paid mechanism and Spark was better placed to support this than Sky.

So there you have it. It’s all on.

To end with a curious aside (but a concerning one depending on your definition of “live” sport), we also learned at the briefing that because it takes longer to process and distribute video feeds using the internet than with traditional methods like satellite delivery, the “latency” time for the live transmission process for the RWC will be between 22 and 26 seconds.

Latency is a fancy term for how long what just happened live in a match in Japan takes to appear on your screen in NZ. Via satellite transmission, how we’ve been watching live sport to date, the latency is about eight seconds.

So here’s a quiet tip: if your neighbour or mate is listening to a radio broadcast of a key All Blacks World Cup match or moment, he or she is going to have about 15 seconds’ jump on you in reaction time.

So that’s your spoiler alert.

After all, 15 seconds is a lot of whooping time.

 

Why Spark says it won’t drop the ball on Rugby World Cup

Spark has four key messages to rugby fans wanting to get ready for Rugby World Cup.

If you want to watch the tournament via live streaming, you will need to purchase Spark Sport’s tournament pass. But before forking out your precious dollars (the pricing is here), you’re best to do a bit of due diligence:

  • Make sure your broadband is ready to stream. You don’t need to be on fibre, but you do need to have a broadband connection that is capable of streaming live content.
  • Get set up with a device to watch – a mobile, tablet, laptop or PC – of if you want watch on a big screen, a Chromecast, an Apple TV, a Smart TV (2017 or more recent, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and LG) or an Android TV device.
  • Purchase a Spark Sport RWC Tournament Pass and make sure you’ve got the app on the device you want to watch from.
  • Test that you can stream well in advance, by streaming one of the best matches from previous Rugby World Cups (this content is included in the Tournament Pass).

How can you be assured it will all work?

Well, if you understand tech, if you’re watching an All Blacks World Cup match live, it goes something like this….

The pictures you will see will come from a global feed provided to all rights-holding broadcasters.  In the case of New Zealand, the feed will be accompanied by an audio commentary from Spark’s Kiwi team headed by Scotty Stevenson.

That feed will be pushed directly to TVNZ in Auckland via the Southern Cross Cable network where it is encoded and then sent on to US-based international streaming company named iStreamPlanet who format the signal for various devices and push it back to New Zealand via another American company named Akamai.

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At its media briefing on Monday, Spark’s Jeff Latch was at pains to point out there are various back-up contingency plans in the event of a stuff-up.

In preparation for a worst case scenario where a critical game not being shown live on TVNZ crashes on Spark Sport, Latch revealed a team of executives including himself will make a call before or during the game for TVNZ to immediately pick up live coverage.

Spark’s key operational man Rob Birrell for one is confident that won’t happen.

“We’ve shown 3000 live events since mid-March and only had an issue with five. We’ve screened 10,000 hours of sporting content,” he said.


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