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Sport wars: Can Sky survive Spark's Rugby World Cup takeover?

Sky is launching 12 new channels including a daily sports news show featuring journalist Kate King and Radio Sport’s Goran Paladin. Photo/Screenshot.

Sky TV has unveiled new channels and a revamped streaming app that sees the ailing company doubling down on sport. But with rival Spark gearing up to show the Rugby World Cup, will it be enough to save the fortunes of the country’s largest pay-TV provider?

It is the sort of package sports fans in America or Europe, who are willing to pay, have enjoyed for years. Yesterday, Sky said it would next month launch a revamped line-up of 12 sports channels, a new Sky Sport Now app to replace Fan Pass and perhaps most significantly, debut a dedicated 27/4 sports news channel.

It represents Sky’s new chief executive Martin Stewart’s first big content play and predictably, focusses on the area that has kept Sky’s business intact through the streaming wars kicked off with the arrival here of Netflix in 2015.

Sky has always been the country’s largest sports content provider, but previous CEO John Fellet made some puzzling moves towards the end of his tenure. He had a winning product in the sports streaming service Fanpass but angered sports fans just before the Lions rugby tour and America's Cup tournament in 2017 by hiking the monthly price from $55.99 to $99.99.

Then he blinked at the negotiating table for Rugby World Cup 2019 broadcast and streaming rights, allowing Spark Sports and TVNZ to strike a partnership, swoop in and take a crack at the business propping up Sky.

Stewart reversed that Fanpass pricing decision as soon as he joined Sky and yesterday suggested missing out on the Cup rights was a mistake and one that wouldn’t be repeated.

"If someone outbids us, they're going to go broke," he told the New Zealand Herald.

Goodbye Fanpass, hello Sport Now

The channel revamp is more than cosmetic. Sky currently has four core sports channels and a host of pop-up channels for special events and re-runs. Now there will be 12 permanent channels available in high-definition, four of which will each focus on rugby, cricket, football and golf. Others will have a weighting towards the remaining popular sports, like netball, rugby league and motorsport. The two ESPN channels will remain.

All of those channels will be replicated in the Sky Sport Now app that will be available from 14 August and which has some reasonable pricing. A week pass costs $19.99, with a month pass $49.99 and a 12-month pass $39.99 per month.

A subscription to Sky Sport Now doesn’t require you to be a subscriber to Sky’s core pay-TV offering and, importantly, it will allow you to display the app content on your big-screen TV, a feature still missing from the Sky Go app which features a range of Sky’s channels.

There will be access to replays, highlights and documentaries featured on-demand through the app, as well as a stats section with “results, fixtures, tables and top performers”, according to Sky.

The Sky Sport News channel will run 24/7 and mainly take feeds from Fox Sports News Australia and Sky Sports News UK. But Sky is launching a daily sports news show featuring journalist Kate King and Radio Sport’s Goran Paladin.

That channel has great potential. Can you imagine the analysis a dedicated sports show could have done on that heartbreaking Cricket World Cup final? All Blacks test squad naming press conferences are big news events and Sky has the ability to cover them in-depth. Sky has produced sports shows in the past, but making a regular feature of sports news builds a presence that has been a mainstay of ESPN and other networks overseas, and will help build a loyal audience.

Sports rights are everything

But when it comes down to it, securing the most cherished sports broadcasting and streaming rights is what is key and Spark is very much in the hunt for them. Sky can expect to take a back seat in the next few months as Spark Sports gears up to cover the Rugby World Cup tournament in Japan.

There is a lot riding on this for Spark. While the service has had teething problems in recent months, the head of Spark Sport, Jeff Latch, said this week that the reliability of the streaming service was much improved last month.

“Spark Sport is performing excellently – we had a live event service level of 99.9% in June – and we’re looking forward to providing football fans with an EPL [European Premiere League] season to remember, for all the right reasons,” he said in a statement.

Spark’s streaming of the EPL season, which kicks off on August 9, will be a nice entree to the Rugby World Cup. But the latter tournament is the big game in town for Kiwis and there are question marks over Sky’s ability to make it a great viewing experience.

The Spark Sport app itself, which costs $19.99 a month, is technically pretty good. The user interface is clean and easy to navigate and the streams load quickly. But it is the behind-the-scenes infrastructure that will be causing Spark’s engineers most concern as Cup time looms. Will all of those broadband and mobile data connections be able to handle the load of hundreds of thousands of Kiwis tuning in online at the same time? It has never been done before.

While some of the key games will be shown on TVNZ (12 matches will be available for free on TVNZ and for Spark Sport free-to-view account holders, including every New Zealand pool and knock-out match, some live and some delayed) only those with the Spark Sport Tournament Pass ($79.99 early bird price until September 10) will be able to see all of the games live via the app.

There is another issue – making sure everyone understands how to access the app on the big screen TV in their lounge.

How Sky's share price has tanked over the last two years.

How to get ready for the Rugby World Cup

Spark has done a fairly good job of making the app widely available on smart TVs purchased since 2017. It is already available on newish Samsung, Sony and Panasonic TVs, with it coming to LG TVs before the Cup starts.

But my smart TV is six years old, so that’s not an option for me and thousands of others with similarly-aged TVs. So what do we do? There are a few other options. You could simply plug your computer or phone into your TV screen via an HDMI cable, which will display what’s on your phone or laptop on the big screen.

It isn’t ideal, because you won’t be able to navigate the menu or pause the game with your TV remote, but it will at least let you see the game on your big screen. There are other options available – Spark Sport will work over a Chromecast device, so you can effectively beam the app’s streaming contents to your TV with the Chromecast dongle plugged into it.

But I wouldn’t rely on that – I’ve had a patchy experience with successive Chromecast gadgets. It can be laggy and frequently pauses or crashes completely. That’s probably due to the latency involved in sending an HD video stream wirelessly across the room, after a previous wireless hop from my Wifi router. Plugging in a cable is always a better solution.

There are other dedicated hardware devices that will do the job. The Spark Sport app is available on Apple TV devices, which are solid and reliable. It will also feature on the Smart VU streaming device from Freeview, a great little gadget I’ve been using most of the year.

It lets you stream a selection of Freeview TV channels as well as Netflix, Lightbox, Youtube and many other apps. If you want to breathe new life into an old TV screen, the Smart VU gadget ($139) is a good way to do it. The Freeview Dish TV A2 set-top box recorder will also support Spark Sport, but at $439 it is a big investment.

The key is to load the app on well before game time so you can test whether your internet connection can handle the stream and that the app is working with the hardware set-up you have. Spark is making replays of past Rugby World Cup tournaments available so you have some content available to stream as a test.

Spark is also offering a $149 set-up service where a technician will come to your home to get everything ready for you. Noel Leeming, Harvey Norman and Geeks on Wheels will also set up Spark Sport for you, for a fee.

That may seem like overkill, but a lot of rugby lovers will struggle with the technology, after decades of simply hitting the button on their Sky remote.

You may be able to get by asking Spark’s helpdesk for technical advice, but you can guarantee they’ll be swamped with calls and chat requests when the games begin.

If it all goes pear-shaped, the network fails or the app falls over, TVNZ will ride to the rescue, broadcasting games free to air for everyone to see. That was the nightmare scenario Australian provider Optus faced last year when its streaming service fell over last year during the football World Cup.

It ended up asking broadcaster SBS to broadcast games for free as it tried to sort out its technical issues. Spark will be doing everything it can to avoid that. There’s also the issue of how successfully pubs and bars can stream the games. Commercial operators who have registered with Spark are able to do so, but the required internet connection adds a layer of complexity, particularly for small rural pubs, where rugby fans invariably gather to watch big games.

I’ll be relying on my Smart Vu gadget to watch the games, with an HDMI cable as back-up to stream from my laptop if something goes wrong with my Freeview device.

Sport shake-up to be welcomed

Spark Sport’s arrival is a good thing, despite the frustration for many Sky Sport subscribers that the Rugby World Cup will this year not be available to them. The pressure of a hungry challenger snapping at its heels has shaken Sky and led to this revamp which delivers better value for Sky Sports viewers.

We will soon see a shake-up in the streaming video market in general as Disney and Apple debut their own entertainment services and content that used to appear on Netflix disappears as Hollywood studios remove their movies and TV shows to make their own services look more attractive.

As such, sport is more than ever the anchor that will keep people loyal, so the stakes for Sky, in particular, are huge. It will have to pay handsomely to secure the sports rights that are increasingly its lifeblood in a world with ever-increasing entertainment options and younger viewers who have bypassed the set-top box for mobile streaming apps.

The Rugby World Cup is a tournament dear to our hearts, but also a test of internet-based live streaming that will influence the future of digital entertainment in New Zealand.

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