A new domain name and IP filings show the beginnings of a new digital approach for NZ Rugby – one which may signal a transformation in how it sells its games to broadcasters.
Intellectual property (IP) filings and a new domain name linked to NZ Rugby reveal a new platform which contains a clear potential for an enormous change in the way the organisation behind the All Blacks and Black Ferns manages its games. The new URL is nzrplus.co.nz, claimed by Drew Deakin, digital delivery manager at NZ Rugby on April 11. While not live yet, IP filings for NZR+ provide a window into the organisation’s intentions.
The filings arrived in early April to IPONZ, the government agency in charge of intellectual property. They allow for “broadcasting of rugby matches”, “streaming live sports events”, “sports ticketing”, “subscription broadcasting” and a large number of other potential business verticals. This raises the spectre of a new streaming platform which could allow NZ Rugby to sell access to All Blacks, Black Ferns, NPC or Farah Palmer Cup games via a paid subscription streaming service. Depending on which countries it’s sold in, this could imperil the close relationship between NZ Rugby and Sky, which has held NZ Rugby’s broadcast and streaming rights in New Zealand for decades.
This cannot happen until at least 2026, with Sky’s current deal with NZ Rugby, worth a reported $500m, running through the end of 2025. Sources familiar with the NZR+ project suggest it will launch as a much more modest platform prior to the 2023 men’s Rugby World Cup which kicks off in France on September 9 – less than three months away. The Spinoff understands that its initial incarnation will be a content site, dominated by video clips and short documentary-style footage, focused on getting fans behind-the-scenes with the All Blacks, Black Ferns, Sevens and other national representative sides.
However the filing describes something much more ambitious than a simple fan platform. Along with streaming games, it makes reference to software and platform as a service (SAAS and PAAS), both of which are the underlying technology and business models of subscription streaming. What it looks like is a product which might start as a benign platform for behind-the-scenes footage, but that should properly be understood as a way of building a database of members. They will ultimately become a group to which NZ Rugby hopes to sell NZR+ – a subscription service whereby superfans can purchase access to live and archive matches from across its portfolio of teams.
Floating on the Silver Lake
NZR+ is part of an epochal change at NZ Rugby. Last year the rugby union finally resolved a contentious years-long battle to sell a minority stake in its commercial operation to Silver Lake, a large technology investment firm. It claims almost US$100bn in assets across entities as diverse as AirBnb and payments platform Stripe, along with a number of major sports investments spanning the likes of golf, football and the UFC. It describes its purpose as “creating and delivering value across an expanding range of digital transformation opportunities”, which roughly translates as taking the smart strategies of its newer companies and applying them to some of the legacy businesses it buys into.
Across its sports portfolio, this is dominated by a move to what’s known as “direct-to-consumer” (DTC) business models. While historically clubs and leagues got much of their income by selling the rights to screen games to TV broadcasters, the internet has enabled the rise of DTC platforms which see sports businesses cutting out the middleman and selling direct to their fans.
All the major US sports have such products, along with many teams. One wrinkle is that they typically do this as an alternative to, not a replacement for, broadcast rights. This sidesteps the tricky question of how to package games, as the idea of NZ Rugby providing commentary and analysis of its own teams will excite no one. It’s also entirely possible that NZ Rugby maintains its Sky relationship in New Zealand, but sells its games direct in markets where rugby is less popular.
This is clearly what Sky is hoping for. It supplied a statement to The Spinoff which referred to NZ Rugby as having a plan to “engage and grow the All Blacks fan base outside of New Zealand” and that “creating a content hub is one way to achieve that”.
Sky’s statement addressed the elephant in the room, of whether NZR+ complements or replaces its place as the NZ Rugby’s exclusive broadcast partner. “There are a number of examples globally where sporting bodies operate content platforms which co-exist with the sport’s key media and broadcast partners,” Sky said.
Sources privy to the NZR+ project say it will launch at first as a fan engagement platform – the IP filing refers to “fan club services” – with an aim to capture the attention of All Black and Black Fern fans across the world. While it will require registration, there is no plan to stream games or charge for access at first. When reached for official comment, an NZ Rugby spokesperson would only confirm that “work is underway on a fan engagement platform, with more detail to be revealed in due course”.
A game of games
According to Narly Kalupahana, an IP lawyer who has worked with Mediaworks, Rocket Lab and more, there are a few factors that make this trademark filing stand out. NZ Rugby made two filings in close succession, one a very broad set associated with “NZR”, the second much more focussed and associated with “NZR+”. Kalupahana says it’s “very unusual” to see two similar filings on the same day. He also noted that NZR+ had a significant focus on class 38, which covers broadcasting. Sports is typically covered by class 41, and that is the focus of a large proportion of NZ Rugby’s more than 300 trademark applications. Class 38 and broadcasting is a focus of just 12 applications, but appears at the heart of those associated with NZR+.
Significantly, Kalupahana also noted that there is a “use it or lose it” element to trademarks and IP. While you do not have to immediately make use of the entire scope of your trademarks, if you have not occupied them within three years IPONZ can remove them. It’s potentially telling that Sky’s current exclusive deal to broadcast and stream NZ Rugby’s games expires at the end of 2025 – a little less than three years’ time.
There are other clues which suggest this might be the direction NZ Rugby is headed. Silver Lake’s sports investments include MSG Group, which controls New York’s Knicks NBA franchise and Rangers NHL team, along with City Football, an investor in Premier League champions Manchester City. Each has a direct online subscription platform that enables fans to access full games, highlights and other content for a monthly fee. Both MSG and City Football operate these paid subscriptions under the suffix “plus”.
Along with the streaming trademarks, there are a number of others which point to future strategy, and the potential areas which NZR+ might develop into. These include some which are very of the moment (NFTs, digital memorabilia), some very obvious (selling merch, team data), and others which are frankly baffling (binoculars, calculators, computer mice). This is typical when filing for trademarks, allowing for them to develop over time. However according to Kalupahana, it can sometimes be done to mask the true intentions of a project. Still, one thing is abundantly clear: NZ Rugby is about to enter the digital age in a profound way, and its impacts will be felt years into the future.