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Exclusive: All Blacks in major content deal with US tech giant Amazon

The All Blacks will be featured in an in-depth eight part documentary series for Amazon Prime. New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew talks to Duncan Greive about what the partnership means for the brand – and for their relationship with Sky.

US tech giant Amazon’s Prime video on demand service is well into production on an in-depth documentary series which studies the All Blacks and their status as “the winningest team in the history of sports”. The deal is New Zealand Rugby’s first with a major international pay streaming platform, and will see an intimate eight part portrait of the team released early in 2018, to a potential audience in the hundreds of millions in over 200 countries.

NZ Rugby CEO Steve Tew told The Spinoff the series would be “a documentary about why the All Blacks have been very successful over a long period of time,” and be made on “a level we’ve never seen before.” It includes the recent Lions series, and will continue shooting through this season.

Tew would not be drawn on the commercial terms of the deal, characterising it as predominantly motivated by the scale of the international audience to which it introduces the team. “The relationship we have in place is one that’s of significant benefit to New Zealand rugby,” he said, while adding that “there is a commercial element too, and we’re very comfortable with the level of investment.”

Steve Tew (Photo: Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The most intriguing thread to the deal from a local media perspective is what it indicates about NZ Rugby’s openness to streaming platforms in general. Despite online distribution through Rugby Pass in Asia and a small experiment with YouTube, for over two decades and the entire professional era the organisation has had an tight relationship with Sky television in New Zealand, one which has provided the bulk of operating revenues and underpinned rugby’s growth into the commercial giant it is today. When pressed, though, Tew was at pains to frame this as of no relevance to the core game product, which remains with Sky through the end of 2020.

“This is not about any streaming rights,” says Tew. “This is simply a documentary. It’s important to make it clear that our relationship with Sky has aided this documentary considerably.” That has included the provision of in-game footage to the documentary makers – Warner Brothers NZ and Mother Media Group, with production wunderkind Bailey Mackey (Sidewalk Karaoke) also involved. Additionally, after debuting on Amazon Prime, The Spinoff understands it will also play on Sky in New Zealand.

For Amazon it brings another major sporting documentary to follow All or Nothing, their Emmy-winning series following the LA Rams, and more content in a category which has found both popular and critical acclaim in recent years after being popularised by ESPN’s ‘30 for 30’ brand.

“The All Blacks are the winningest team in the history of team sports with an 84 percent winning record over the last 130 years,” says Amazon Originals’ head of unscripted Conrad Riggs. “This series will provide Prime members a glimpse into what makes them so successful and what it means to undertake the responsibility of donning the Black Jersey and performing the sacred Haka.

“The story of the All Blacks is also the story of New Zealand. The team is not only a source of pride, but a barometer of the national mood, with a strong cultural connection to the nation, its people and its heritage,” said Riggs in a statement.

New Zealand perform the Haka before the 2015 Rugby World Cup semifinal. (Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Given that Amazon is in the process of opening its first Australian fulfilment centre in Melbourne, it also provides a major hook for Prime subscriptions in the region just as the service starts to have an opportunity to gain real traction in this part of the world. Prime subscribers pay a one-off fee for a year’s worth of free fast delivery and access to Amazon Prime’s video library. While it’s not yet available here, the video content is – and is dirt cheap, starting at $2.99 a month. This series gives the company a strong piece of local content with which it can both press SVOD market leader Netflix – which has yet to make significant original content in this region – and incentivise sign-ups to the total package when it launches.

The arrival of Amazon to this part of the world will be of more concern locally to the likes of The Warehouse – which has partnered with NZ Post to offer a Prime-like delivery service – and supermarket chain Foodstuffs than Sky at this point. Yet with Facebook buying MLB rights, and a four-way tech bidding war for NFL rights – with Amazon amongst the bidders – Sky should be paying attention too. While Tew would not be drawn, the prospects of a greater online access to NZ Rugby post-2020 – given Sky’s recent retrenchment in the space – look to be improved.

What it also suggests is that NZ Rugby’s focus on the All Blacks brand continues to pay commercial dividends. “The All Blacks are the economic machine of New Zealand rugby,” says Tew. “If the All Blacks weren’t able to sustain the revenue that they do we’d have trouble sustaining [the Mitre 10 Cup and club rugby].”

All Blacks vs Wales at Eden Park, 2016. (Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

While the Mitre 10 Cup (something like its fourth name in the past decade or so) has been a marginal commercial proposition for a while now, of greater concern must be the waning interest in Super Rugby. The sight of thousands of empty seats at the Crusaders’ home semi-final was shocking, and Australia is in an even worse state. Rumours circulate that Foxtel is considering not bidding on rights to the competition when they come up for tender for the 2020 season.

“I don’t know where Foxtel are at – we’re halfway through this deal,” says Tew. “There are issues in Australia which are well-documented.”

Despite such a shaky situation in Australia, the Amazon deal demonstrates the continued primacy of the All Blacks brand and, thanks to the ongoing AIG partnership, the strength of NZ Rugby’s financial position. This new content partnership enables NZ Rugby to test the water on international streaming in a contained environment, while they assess how to work the next rights deal. Sports rights values have been exploding lately, while internationally the trend has been for rights to be either carved up amongst multiple parties, or for sports organisations to deliver their own products online through an subscription media platform of their own.

However it plays out, the deal is a significant one for NZ Rugby. What it means for its longtime New Zealand broadcast partner remains to be seen.

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