The Hot List winners: biggest move

21. Biggest Move: Spark + TVNZ + RWC rights 

Nominees: Amazon Prime, John Fellet departing Sky, The Spinoff TV, RNZ+, Cuisine’s ownership moving, Stuff selling mastheads, ThinkTV 

Sky has long been one of the country’s most successful and profitable media companies and a lot of that has stemmed from its hold on sports rights – and particularly rugby. But that dominance is starting to be tested, as telcos and tech platforms vie for sports broadcast rights. And in what is seen by many as a shot across the bow of Sky and a sign of things to come, Spark and TVNZ snatched the 2019 Rugby World Cup rights away 

Some games will to be screened on free-to-air, and all games streamed live via an app for anyone willing to fork out an estimated $100. And while streaming content has become the norm for many New Zealanders, live sports streaming in New Zealand has had a chequered history, with the likes of Premier League Pass struggling to make headway with football and Sky’s platform SkyGo regularly failing during peak times (it has recently been updated to include on-demand TV and given an overhaul to ensure it can handle the jandal when it comes to live sports). Overseas, live streaming of sports is common, with leagues like NFL, NBA and NFL offering games direct to consumers for a fee (typically outside of the US market where broadcasters still hold the rights). And the improving technology and the widespread adoption of fibre has given Spark the confidence to deliver a quality viewing experience for this tournament, as well as the 2021 Women’s World Cup, the 2018 World Cup Sevens and 2018 and ’19 World Rugby U20 Championships that were part of the deal with World Rugby. The pressure will certainly be on Spark to make sure the tech all works smoothly given New Zealand’s enduring passion for rugby – or, more specifically, the All Blacks – and, as its recent issues after a Lightbox upgrade show, that’s not always guaranteed.

No-one has confirmed the amount involved in the deal, but Sky pulled out of the negotiations and said Spark “paid a lot of money”. But it’s on strategy for Spark and is the latest move in its e orts to become more than just a series of ‘dump pipes’. It has already invested heavily in its own streaming service Lightbox and has established a number of content deals with big tech platforms like Net ix and Spotify, largely as a marketing exercise to incentivise broadband and mobile uptake. Sky’s retiring CEO John Fellet has often said that it’s easy to buy content, but it’s very di cult to make money out of it. Spark’s model is different than Sky’s, however. While it will obviously be getting revenue from those paying to watch the tournament, it will also presumably be using access to it as a carrot to attract new customers.

TVNZ, which has focused more heavily on free-to-air sports rights in recent years with the likes of America’s Cup and The Commonwealth Games on TVNZ 1 and a range of US sports on Duke, will screen seven matches live – including the opening match and the final – and it will also air a number of delayed games. While the broadcasters and delivery system are different, it’s similar to 2015, when all games were screened on paid-for Sky and some live games, delayed games and highlights packages screened on its free-to-air channel Prime.

TVNZ faced some criticism for the ads that ran during the Commonwealth Games recently, so it has pre-empted concerns about that and said ads won’t run during live game time. Some existing Sky customers aren’t keen on the additional cost they’ll have to foot and those in the rural regions with limited access to speedy internet – or the technologically incompetent – feel they might miss out.

For Sky, this isn’t a fatal blow, but it’s certainly a significant esh wound. And the fight seems to be getting bloodier, with Amazon, which just released an in-depth documentary about the All Blacks, sniffing around global sports rights. Sky contends there is always plenty of interest in these rights and this is just one tournament over three weeks that it has lost (plus, of course, the other tournaments across different years). For it, the important thing is that it still has ongoing rights to screen Super Rugby games and other test matches. The current SANZAR deal comes to an end in 2020 and negotiations for the next five year round are set to start soon, which is apparently earlier than normal to allow new bidders to get their house in order. It will be interesting to see who’s willing to pay more for them – and what that means for Sky’s golden goose, NZ Rugby’s co ers and the overall viewing experience. Welcome to the future of sport. 

​​People’s choice: Spark + TVNZ + RWC rights  


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