It’s 2008 and Beijing is hosting the Olympics. TVNZ has the broadcasting rights and, alongside its traditional terrestrial service, is offering an online service. You can log on to the TVNZ website and watch live feeds of the Games from the various venues. The quality isn’t exactly 4K, but it’s better than the dodgy illegal streams and the coverage of events is nearly perfect.
Cut to 2019 and online sports streaming is dominated by the leagues, such as the US’ National Basketball Association and National Football League, and TV operators like Sky. We have neither the same level of coverage or freedom we had a decade ago.
But now New Zealand’s biggest telco is venturing into this space with its new streaming service: Spark Sport. It plans to deliver what is possibly the most popular sporting event in this country, the Rugby World Cup (RWC). No pressure.
The big question hanging over Spark Sport is: how well will it work? As of now, offering a stable streaming service for live sport is a gamble.
Fan Pass and Sky Go have been maligned in recent years for crashing when they come under any kind of big load – usually during All Blacks games. These failures have left many wondering if Spark is setting itself and rugby fans up for a fall.
Of course, it’s not just rugby. Spark Sport will also have English Premier League football (from August 2019), Manchester United TV, rugby’s Heineken Champions Cup, Formula 1 and the FIH Hockey Pro League. Starting just a month out from the RWC kick-off, the Premier League will provide not only the load test that Spark needs, but also give an indication of fan satisfaction.
Premier League fans have suffered more than most in recent years with the demise of Premier League Pass followed by the poor implementation of the BeIN Sports’ online option. It’s fair to say then that the current mood concerning Spark Sport is one of scepticism. So, what do we know?
The Spark view on streaming sports
Spark Sport will be a live, on-demand sports streaming platform built by iStreamPlanet, which currently supports streaming for NBA League Pass and the Olympics. Jeff Latch, head of Spark Sport, says the business chose iStreamPlanet as it has “an impressive pedigree”. It provides the streaming platform for a number of large sports events. These include the Super Bowl, basketball’s NCAA March Madness, and the Formula 1 TV Pro channel. Also, its ability to provide support for “a very large number of concurrent users” is impressive.
He says: “iStreamPlanet will provide the bulk of the technical infrastructure for Spark Sport, including video encoding and distribution, user authentication, subscription management and billing, and app development, across a wide range of devices.”
The range of devices is set to expand after Spark Sport’s launch, as will the number of functions.
Latch is also clear that you won’t need broadband fibre to stream sport (although it will help).
“If you do have a slower connection, we will automatically adjust the quality of your stream to fit your connection speed. So, the actual quality of the video you’re watching will depend on the quality of your internet connection – as well as the type and quality of your devices, and your home set-up,” he says. This is already the case for Netflix and Lightbox.
However, there is a back-up. TVNZ will be the free-to-air partner for Spark Sport during the RWC and a number of games will be broadcast over its terrestrial network, including the final. This is not only helpful for those with poor internet connectivity, but also for those who can’t afford a subscription.
Spark Sport will charge $20 a month for all its content. There are no ongoing commitments and it starts with a one month free trial. The RWC will also be offered as a standalone subscription, however, with options for the tournament and individual game passes. There will also be a “freemium” model with some content available even if you don’t want to pay for a subscription.
There will be advertising on the platform. However, there will be no adverts during game play or straight after the Haka. This is currently done well on other international sports streaming sites such as MLB.TV and Rugby Pass, where advert breaks are replaced with either a live feed from the stadium or short highlights.
Latch says: “We believe by making sports content more affordable – through flexible plans and packages – and by offering it over a range of options, for when and where people watch games or events, we are making sport more accessible to New Zealand as a whole.”
Treated as pinballs
In general, New Zealand sports fans have found themselves being treated as pinballs, knocked around by media companies as they jostle and fight over broadcasting rights. Currently, there are only a few sports available to stream direct from source and most of these are American sports backed by big money. The rest are often the sole domain of pay-TV (tennis, golf, league and so on).
Spark Sport is a refreshing change in the New Zealand media landscape, offering something new and providing some competition for the old guard of sports coverage. Whether the infrastructure will hold up under the strain is yet to be seen – and tested. Early games shown will either be a catastrophe or a triumph.
Last year, during the FIFA World Cup, football fans were furious when Australian telco Optus’ online coverage broke down. Viewers were left staring at “playback error” messages. Optus had to offload the tournament to SBS TV to broadcast the matches. Spark will have observed this – and the damage it did to the Optus brand. It’s likely hoping everything will play out well, even more than rugby fans.
The old rival - what is Sky doing?
Sky TV has long been criticised for its stubborn refusal to embrace streaming. But this is changing. Its Neon movie and television service is no longer the dud it was a year ago – very little HD (high definition) content, expensive and unreliable. It is now a reasonable service worth paying for – especially if you like Game of Thrones.
When it comes to sports, however, Sky keeps making blunders.
Fan Pass was a welcome addition to New Zealand’s streaming market when it was first launched in 2015. At first, fans could buy full seasons of Super Rugby, Rugby League or F1 racing. The streaming was slightly better than the Sky Go app and the prices weren’t too bad.
The service then switched to monthly, weekly and single day passes. And, instead of individual sports, it offered live access to Sky Sports 1, 2, and 3.
Then, during rugby’s Lions Tour in 2017, Sky decided to change the pricing structure. Single day passes were removed, prices for monthly subscriptions were doubled and six-monthly and yearly options added. The result was a lot of people turning away from what had been a useful service.
Fan Pass remains innovative though. It is available as an app on most new smart TVs and on nearly all mobile devices. Sky also offers free Google Chromecast streaming video as an incentive. This allows fans to view sports from their televisions. But there is no on-demand version and Sky’s special pop-up channels remain on Sky only.
Sky still owns the rights to a large number of sports, including tennis, golf and cricket, so it’s not about to disappear from the market any time soon.