Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

TV starved minnows look at innovative ways to shine

Sky TV's virtual monopoly on sports broadcasting is being challenged not by networks, but by the sports themselves, delivering their own online match coverage using a bit of digital savvy, reports Chris Rattue.

In the land of rugby, it is really difficult to promote football. Image / Rod Emmerson
In the land of rugby, it is really difficult to promote football. Image / Rod Emmerson

You can't miss a television outside broadcast truck at a major sports event. Huge, and with cables spurting everywhere, everything about a standard OB truck screams money, lots of it.

When you next see one at a cricket match, remember that Sky's overall coverage there costs $100,000 a day, commentators' wages included.

But over at the Oceania Football Confederation headquarters next to Mt Smart Stadium lurks a new-age version of the OB truck. It's so small that it would get lost in a carpark but for the wee satellite dish atop. OFC TV also has eight cameras plus more scattered around the Oceania soccer region. Match day coverage - a few thousand dollars a day.

Frustrated by the lack of domestic and regional soccer on mainstream television, Fifa's Oceania division has gone on the offensive, setting up its own channel capability and production unit. There are numerous delivery options but YouTube has emerged as the initial platform.

Other Oceania nations are already receiving. Last Sunday's Champions League semifinal at Kiwitea St between Auckland City and Fijian side Ba went live to Fiji and Vanuatu. The match was also test-streamed successfully on a YouTube channel in a breakthrough moment for New Zealand soccer. OFC TV Live will officially launch on YouTube in late July for coverage of the Oceania Futsal championship at Waitakere Trusts Stadium.

"I'm more of a football fan than a businessman," said Olivier Huc, the Frenchman who instigated and leads this unique Fifa project which other New Zealand sports can tap into.

"TV is the key but in the land of rugby, it is really difficult to promote football. We are up against a monopoly."

That monopoly is Sky TV, the subscriber channel which has brought the world of sport into New Zealand living rooms. Yet outside of the big four - rugby, league, cricket and netball - second-tier sports have found their pathway to the airwaves blocked by Sky's business mantra. Only now are more of them grasping that the internet provides an alternative. With the advent of smart TV in the past three years, it's even a cinch to transfer internet content to television screens through home wi-fi networks.

So welcome to the revolution. The worm is turning. Digital awareness, faster broadband, changing viewing habits and remarkable technological advances allow sports to produce and deliver to the masses, their way. Yet in New Zealand, the brave new world has largely bypassed sport, with internet rights left to languish.

Major sports such as America's major league baseball are in on the act, with innovative ways of delivering live content, highlights and a lot more not only to computers, but the rapidly growing number of mobile devices. But little sports can now entertain a realistic idea of joining the party, in an age where a TV channel can be operated out of a bedroom.

This democratisation of sports coverage was evident at two recent events in Auckland, the world softball championships and an international badminton tournament.

Sky were not interested in the opening five days of the softball, and the television giant's CEO John Fellet said the only viable commercial option was to cover the final games on Sunday. A compromise was reached. For a $36,500 fee paid by softball, Sky covered the last three days. But softball still made its tournament available to the world, through live internet streaming of action from the No1 diamond at a cost to subscribers of US$5 a day.

Badminton promoter Julie Carrel was not so kind about Sky who refused live or delayed coverage even though she would provide it - at a cost of $35,000 to her - for free. After the Invercargill-based Freeview outfit Cue Television stepped in to relay live coverage, she says Sky scrapped the highlights package they were going to show a week later.

Carrel says: "I didn't like the attitude of Sky... I'd got over them not wanting to carry it live, but the highlights package was hitting a different market.

"But the internet is taking over. I think it will change the face of things. The consumer will get used to the idea that wherever sport is on in the world, they will be able to find it. Streaming is changing the world."

Ex-staffers from the networks - from camera operators to executive producers - are the freelancers at the heart of this new industry.

However the revolution may come too late for one internet streaming veteran, Aaron Crabb, whose ventures have included Speedbox, which covered second-level motorsports such as the Wanganui Cemetery motorcycle event.

"We had an intensely loyal audience - we had multi-cameras, commentary and graphics," says Crabb, who now runs Slipstream.

"We heard of regular Speedbox parties where punters would plug their laptop into the biggest flat screen they had, invite mates over and watch five hours of uninterrupted coverage."

Crabb says a lack of sponsorship scuppered Speedbox, but he is also mystified at a lack of take-up by New Zealand subscribers and sports, and laughs at the oft-heard claim that Kiwis lap up technological advances. "Just because we use a lot of Eftpos," says Crabb. "I saw an explosive future in online and kind of fell into it. It has happened overseas but certainly not in New Zealand.

"Sky has a nice monopoly and no incentive to change... [but] there is a lot of discussion about the sustainability of television and there will be a day when all broadcast is IP based."

After "11 years of blood, sweat and considerable personal financial investment" he appeared worn out from swimming upstream.

"We have pitched to many sports, to transcend TV, to transcend Sky, to get their events out to the world for a fraction of the cost," says Crabb. "Some have understood that, but most have not. We [New Zealanders] are amazingly slow in that respect."

Olivier Huc and OFC TV will be there - bet your soccer boots on that. Huc, who has an extensive television history including as an on-screen host and is a Fifa communications instructor, is playing a cautious game to ensure the quality of OFC TV is high when it hits New Zealand. The plan includes providing wide-ranging content, not just match coverage.

His YouTube highlight packages reveal the extraordinary potential. One match, between America Samoa and Tonga, received nearly 300,000 views with over half from mobile devices.

There is a pioneering spirit to what they are doing, even though the massive Fifa name stands behind the project. Huc, his engineer Billy Kapoor and Kapoor's father built the little OB unit, which can be operated by just two people. Throw in a commentator, and a handful of camera operators and hey presto - match coverage.

Who knows? Down the track, Sky may embrace local soccer if OFC TV thrives and invite it on board in classic takeover style. If so, Huc will be all ears: "I am a real competitor," he says, "but promoting soccer is my No1 mission."

- NZ Herald

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