Spark always said that New Zealand vs South Africa would be the toughest test of its streaming service - given the other pool competition is soft, the quarter-final will probably be a cruise for the ABs too, and the semis and final will be live on TVNZ.
It failed that test - and that's going to have huge, possibly mortal, impact on its chances of landing season-long competitions from NZ Rugby and Sanzaar or other major codes.
Streaming is the future. Freeview is planning on the plug being pulled on terrestrial broadcasting in 2035, the Herald understands.
But NZ Rugby and Sanzaar will now be very, very nervous about handing their next five-year contract (for 2021 through 2026) to any party who is offering streaming only. Sky is suddenly in the catbird seat.
The telco says only a "small number" were hit by problems - and gripes do have to be seen in the context that it streams peaked at 132,000 during the match (notably, just 1000 shy of the Herald's break-even calculation, though Spark has not said how many people paid and how many got it as a freebie as part of Spark plan).
In April, predicted political blowback from NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell if Spark Sport fell over (CM earlier pushed a private member's bill to make major sport free-to-air, a la Aussie's "anti-siphoning" legislation). IIt's worse. Winston has done his nut https://t.co/xzyWFu4Pv8— Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) September 22, 2019
Still, after a promising start, social media lit up like a Christmas tree around half-way through the first half. Although only a few had the service cut out altogether, many had a number of brief pauses in the action as the "the three wheels of death" appeared onscreen as Spark Sport buffered.
The telco got kudos for having a well-organised fallback plan in place (though some TV-less Millennials were angry there was no TVNZ On Demand streaming option).
Spark will argue that it took a safety-first approach by simulcasting the game after only minor issues. That would be a stronger argument if Spark could put its finger on the problem.*
That will give NZ Rugby and other major sporting organisations the heebeejeebees.
And NZ Rugby and co will be probably wondering if it was only a small number who had a bad experience, or only a small number who bothered to take to social media to complain (Spark points to the stat that the streams only dropped from 132,000 to 126,000 after the simulcast began on Duke).
• 10,000 fans ask for help with Spark Sport
New Spark boss Jolie Hodson said it was not an issue with domestic broadband capacity.
But that's never really been an issue. After the UFB fibre rollout and other upgrades, and international upgrades, NZ is blessed with scads of bandwidth. But it's how you manage it that's the tricky part.
It's notable that many who were able to watch the opener (60,000 streams) and the Australia-Fiji clash (88,000 streams) then had problems when 132,000 piled in for the ABs vs South Africa.
And 132,000 is still only a fraction of those who want to watch rugby (TVNZ, quoting Nielsen stats, said 982,000 watched its coverage of the opening ceremony and opening match).
And last night's problems come on top of a number of wobbles with Spark's English Premier league football coverage, and the "known issue" that some 40,000 rural households just don't have good enough broadband to stream the RCW.
Spark is bravely trying to play down last night's issues, and the numbers affected.
But as the Herald warned then-Spark boss Simon Moutter when the telco first won World Cup rights, these are the All Blacks we're talking about. There's no room for error, and there'll be zero patience for failure from viewers if they feel like they're being used as guinea pigs in streaming experiment.
Gripping game of rugby this, but unfortunately tomorrow’s lead story will be the broadcast issues. Spark’s latest Facebook post has 1300 comments in 30 minutes. You can guess the content. A shame because streaming is the future of live sport, but there’re clearly major issues.— Jason Pine (@pineyzb) September 21, 2019
The pain is going to drag out over coming months as some fans demand refunds (Spark offered a wind-up 10 per cent initially) and others who shelled out thousands for a new smart TV possibly head to the Disputes Tribunal (the buyer of a $3500 smart TV on the eve of the tournament last night told the Herald he was considering a complaint).
Others shelled out $70 for a Chromecast or $250+ for an Apple TV on top of their $90 Tournament Pass.
There are lots of successful examples of streaming overseas (though also some high-profile glitches, as with Amazon's exclusive US Open stream in the UK earlier this month).
You can come back from a streaming disaster, as Optus has shown across the Tasman. The Aussie telco has pushed past its FIFA World Cup 2018 "Floptus" streaming debacle to build a healthy streaming business.
But it will take time, and last night's match was Spark Sport's big showcase - and the only one it will get - during negotiations with NZ Ruby and Sanzaar over 2021-2026 rights to Super Rugby and All Blacks games.
For rival Sky, those negotiations just got a whole lot easier.
* Spark said at 1pm:
"Following technical investigations overnight and this morning, Spark Sport is making configuration changes to the way the video stream comes into New Zealand.
"These configuration changes will be implemented prior to today's matches, which commence with Italy v Namibia from 4.45pm.
"[But] Spark will simulcast all of today's Rugby World Cup coverage free-to-air on TVNZ DUKE so our customers can have full confidence they will be able to enjoy the matches tonight."