Sky has opened up Sky Sport channels 1, 2, 3 and 4 to non-subscribers through its online sports streaming service Fan Pass.
This announcement means that sports fans will be able to access the quartet of channels through a one-day streaming pass for $14.99 or a week for $19.99.
"The first version of Fan Pass was exciting, but this is just taking to whole new level," says Fan Pass general manager Cuan Gray.
Gray says that this shift in strategy has been introduced in response to the changing media consumption habits of Kiwis.
"It was only a matter until sports broadcasting followed general entertainment," Gray says. "People want to pick and choose what they want to watch, whether that's movies, series or sports."
Gray believes that the sports streaming space will go through a period of fragmentation as various players in jostle to acquire rights for various sports and events, but he believes a single aggregator will eventually lead the market.
This argument has clear parallels with entertainment space, which has seen Netflix emerge as the primary source of movie and series content in the US market. And while the local market is still fragmented with Lightbox, Neon, Quickflix and Netflix fighting for a piece of the pie, ISP data is starting to suggest that Netflix streaming is accounting for an incrementally increasing share of bandwidth use (however, it's worth noting that Netflix streams in high definition, which also pushes up bandwidth use).
As indicated by comments from Taryn Hamilton, M2 Group’s general manager of consumer for Slingshot, Orcon and Flip, the massive spike in bandwidth usage that coincided with the arrival of Netflix apparently caught several ISP players off guard.
"Our strategy when Netflix entered the market was to make sure that we had our network infrastructure up to spec, because we knew how much volume it was going to command. This is quite a different strategy. You would’ve seen quite a lot of press over the last month or so about the big guys whingeing about how much Netflix was consuming, and we were sitting there going, ‘Well, shit seriously? Are you for real? You know, did you not anticipate that this was happening? And are you forgetting, first and foremost, that it’s your job to make sure that people can consume this content to high quality?’"
Hamilton also went on to say that he was surprised that Sky wasn't able to put up a bigger fight against Netflix.
"They could’ve absolutely dominated the market if they’d put even a reasonable effort into investing in a proper content-delivery network," Hamilton argues. "To use an analogy, they could’ve been the Trade Me of New Zealand. As you know, most other territories in the world are dominated by eBay, but Trade Me got in there fast and delivered a great product, and now pretty much no one mentions eBay— whereas, Sky have lost that opportunity in the New Zealand market. And now Netflix has come in and it’s done incredibly well."
Sports broadcasting is, however, a completely different situation. And by opening up its channels to the broader audience, Sky is essentially positioning Fan Pass as a service Kiwis can rely on to access the big games. And this move does seem to be well timed, given that YouTube has confirmed its intention to move into the live sports broadcasting market.
Looking at the spread of content Sky has rights to, the broadcaster certainly has what it needs to appeal to a broad Kiwi audience.
"We know that people will be excited about the Rugby World Cup coming up and this weekend is especially big for Kiwi sport," Cuan says. "We have the Bledisloe Cup decider, the Netball World Cup final and a new-look Warriors team taking on the Panthers.”
Previously, All Blacks rugby matches have been broadcast to international audiences via YouTube, but this was of little benefit to local Kiwis eager to watch the game. For this reason, the Fan Pass expansion will be welcomed by local fans who now have a means by which to watch the games without having to sign up for a full Sky subscription.*
In addition to the Formula One, Super 15, NRL already available on Fan Pass, the new channels will also give viewers access to Black Caps games and the upcoming Breakers season in the NBL.
One thing that users will not be able to access through Fan Pass is the English Premier League, which is currently available on competition service Coliseum. Gray did, however, hint that this wasn't set in stone and it could change in the future.
"Rights being the fluid thing that they are can change from one provider to another," he says.
A slight encumbrance to the appeal Fan Pass appeal in this market might come from within Sky stable, in that Sky Go already provides access to all the content available on Fan Pass. And while it might not be a legitimate use of the service, it isn't unusual for friends and family members to share their three-device allowance with others (Sky spokesperson Kirsty Way was asked about how common this is, but we are yet to receive a response). So this brings into question the point of paying for Fan Pass when the content could be access free of charge.
However, the perceived unreliability of SkyGo could be enough to convince some sports fans to fork out the cash for Fan Pass. Since its launch, Sky Go has been subject to a steady stream of complaints from users who claim that it crashes during big sporting events.
Gray concedes that this is the case with Sky Go, but he says that Fan Pass has partnered with different technology partner in NeuLion, which specialises in delivering high quality streams for major sports events.
“NeuLion really is by far the leader in this space having streamed more than 50,000 live sports events including the NBA, NFL and UFC in North America with more than 22 million downloads on mobile,” says Cuan.
The Neulion technology adjusts the quality of stream to the speed of the broadband to ensure that buffering doesn't result in a loss of valuable viewing seconds, which could feature a winning play or horrendous mistake.
*Correction: this article previously incorrectly stated that Sky broadcast All Blacks rugby matches to international audiences. Sky is not involved in the international distribution of rugby content.