The telecommunications company took a huge step this week to becoming a rival to Sky for domestic sports content by announcing a tie-up with NEP, the company that broadcasts the NRL and AFL in Australia.
Spark’s head of sport, Jeff Latch, told Stuff that it now has “the capability to go after all sports in New Zealand, including rugby” and was on a mission to make sport “accessible to Kiwis again”.
“We’ve already said to anyone to anyone that’s asked us that we’re interested in all sports rights going forward, including rugby,” Latch said.
A successful Spark bid for All Blacks tests and Super Rugby would mean the biggest shake-up in sports broadcasting for decades.
Sky has had a long relationship with New Zealand Rugby but Spark’s acquisition of the Rugby World Cup rights from World Rugby showed that the world was changing, said Latch, who was TVNZ’s head of content between 2006-2017.
“I think everyone has an eye on the future in terms of where might rugby go,” Latch said.
“Streaming of sports content is really starting to gather pace around the world because of the benefits it offers in terms of getting sport to consumers at a time, place and on a device that suits them,” Latch said. “That was something that was in World Rugby’s mind when they were talking to us.”
Spark’s ambitions come at a crucial time for rugby broadcasting rights.
The current deal for the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby ends in 2020 but Sanzaar boss Andy Marinos told Stuff last week the organisation wanted to put a proposal to broadcasters “sooner rather than later”.
Sky remains in a strong position.
Latch said that content deals typically gave the current broadcast rights holder – in this case Sky – a chance to extend its contract with NZR.
However, NZR will also be aware it has to secure the next generation of rugby fans, who are not tied to set-top box and satellite technology.
Latch said the All Blacks were self-evidently still a prized media asset while Super Rugby was fundamentally still appealing but faced “challenges”.
“Super Rugby is still a very strong product,” said Latch, a self-confessed long-suffering Blues fan.
“It’s just there is now in terms of other content that’s available there are challenges in a very competitive landscape.
“I think one of the changes that has taken place in New Zealand over the last 10 years is the accessibility of American sports content and European sports content.
“All Blacks matches sell themselves for a variety of reasons, not least one of them is that you’ve got fantastic stadia full of people and huge atmosphere, and that’s now delivered by a raft of other sports that are accessible in New Zealand, and that’s the dynamic that is now playing out and is an interesting one.”
Reach is at the heart of Spark’s strategy, which it sees as a pricing issue rather than a technology or coverage one.
The company has not yet released its pricing plans for its sport-streaming services but in Australia Fox Sports has launched a sports-only streaming service for A$25 a month, half the price of its cheapest pay-TV package.
Asked if that was an intelligent pricing model, Latch said: “I think so. If you want go maximise reach you need to be at a price point that is accessible to a large number of people.”
At present, Sky bundles a basic package with Sky Sports that costs about $50 a month and has been challenged by declining subscriptions as Kiwis change their media consumption habits.
Latch said: “Typically content is king and that’s what actually drives platforms but every 20-25 years there tends to be a technological change that is important as well”.
Those changes meant a potential win for sports consumers as content became cheap enough to appeal to a larger part of the population.
“That’s where we’re heading,” he said. “I think that’s achievable. And I think it’s going to be incredibly powerful for New Zealand sports and it’s going to be incredibly valuable for the sports rights holders as well as for viewers.”