Martin Guptill and the Black Caps in the Cricket World Cup. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Spark just swiped the cricket rights. What does that mean for Sky – and you?

Even bigger than the Rugby World Cup, Spark’s acquisition of six years of local cricket signals the end of a sporting era – and that the telco giant is deadly serious about sports, writes Duncan Greive.

Subterfuge is a time-honoured sporting technique, present in all codes from one degree to another. The dummy and side-step in rugby and league. The head-fake and flop in basketball. The slower ball and switch hitting in cricket.

The latter game has long been second only to rugby in New Zealanders’ hearts, and is now moving platforms, thanks to a dazzling corporate manoeuvre from new Spark CEO Jolie Hodson. In an August interview with the Herald she gave a very coy answer to his inquiry about Spark’s commitment to sports.

“As long as we can get a commercial return, we’ll be happy to participate in those bids, she said, before underlining the point. “We will be looking at sports where we can make the right commercial return.”

It read for all the world as a ceasefire in its burgeoning bidding war with the incumbent Sky – a suggestion that it would be content to nibble at more niche packages around the edges. The likes of the English Premier League and Formula 1, more than the major domestic sports and teams. Further adding to the sense of diffidence was Hodson’s recent elevation to the role – the strategic move into sports was driven by her predecessor, Simon Moutter. It is likely that some of the assumed reticence was good old-fashioned sexism, driven by the baseless idea that a woman just wouldn’t like sport as much.

Meanwhile, down at Sky headquarters in Penrose, a British lion was roaring. New CEO Martin Stewart gave a gloriously entertaining speech at a reintroduction to the brand, warning competitors that they could “go broke” bidding against Sky. With rights packages for cricket and rugby up for grabs in the coming months, it seemed certain that Sky would outspend anyone to defend those properties. Especially when it arranged a nine figure loan facility.

Then, today, a bombshell. Spark has acquired the rights to all domestic cricket for an extraordinary six years. All home Black Caps games will run on its platform, with TVNZ extending its streak of luck, helping as linear broadcast partner for T20 formats.

This is a far bigger deal than the Rugby World Cup. While that tournament is the pinnacle in terms of interest, it’s very short term, and cricket is a far better product to sell. A single game can stretch over five days, a series over multiple months. Better yet, it plays out at a time when many New Zealanders are away from home, so far from being an impediment, streaming is actually a solution to the code’s accessibility.

With six years’ content in the can, it’s an unmissable signal that Spark is in sports for the long-haul. To all other rights holders, this is the moment they can start to trust Spark as partner not to disappear when the board or CEO changes.

The timing is exquisite. A couple of weeks back Spark looked washed from sports, with a major glitch during the All Blacks’ pivotal RWC opener against South Africa, and a vaguely panicked reaction during which it offered full refunds, beyond what seemed necessary. It issued press releases every time it successfully streamed a game, which had the opposite effect of the intended reassurance. Yet now the platform seems far more secure, and to do this now, as the knockout stages approach, seems calculated to inflict maximum damage on Sky subscribers as they await the return of big time local sports to their screens.

The deal is not without its complications. Unlike many other sports, cricket’s rights are a patchwork – and Sky retains much of the blanket. It issued a magnanimous statement this morning, wishing NZ Cricket well (very sincerely, I’m sure) and gently pointing out that its “partnership with Cricket Australia gives us Black Caps tours in 2019/20 and 2020/21, along with all Men’s and Women’s International matches that will be played in Australia, BCCI (India) which includes Black Caps tours in 2021/22 and 2022/23, and the popular Indian Premier League,” before closing with a vaguely menacing rejoinder. “Exciting news is still to come on the international cricket front.”

What could that be? We haven’t had a good Super League-style attempt at a code hijacking in a while, but surely even the hyper-aggressive Stewart doesn’t have that in him. More likely it’s extended overseas rights, which will have the effect of fencing in Spark’s cricket offering, while retaining Sky’s ability to cast itself as the home of sports.

That remains mostly true today, though significantly less so than it did yesterday. Cricket fans will now have to either wear the cost of two services, or toggle them on and off throughout the year. Neither is a very appealing proposition.

Lurking behind it all is the question of rugby rights, which are likely to be decided in the next couple of months. They now loom as existential for Sky – get them, or fold up shop. Its share price, already in the doldrums, crashed to below a dollar for the first time ever today. And while Spark itself also dropped, indicating a lack of confidence in the move, Sky has far less room to breathe through the movements. The market has said exactly what it thinks of Stewart’s aggressive posture. Was his aggression itself an over-confident act, a head-fake of its own – or does this tremendously assured exec have one last big play in him?

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