Up until last Friday, new Sky TV boss Martin Stewart had made a number of tweaks to his company's strategy.
Pundits saw him making sensible moves, but nothing revolutionary. Putting more emphasis on streaming, and more sports content online made sense. But at the end of the day, he was simply implementing long-overdue changes as he played catch-up. Ratings didn't budge, and Sky shares remained in the cellar.
But then on Friday, Stewart revealed a play no one had seen coming. A big move that could be the proverbial game-changer: buying 100 per cent of RugbyPass in a deal worth up to $62m (the US$40m acquisition involves US$10m cash, US$20m in - whisper it - new Sky shares - and US$10m in earnouts).
Sky TV, Spark Sport and other media players face the perennial problem of New Zealand's tiny population. The cost of developing a streaming service is roughly the same as it is for ESPN, but there are a whole lot fewer customers to spread the cost across.
With Rugby Pass in its stable, Sky will start collecting revenue from multiple countries - and it could potentially supercharge the service by adding All Blacks content and expanding its geographic reach. It's a break-out move.
Through a deal with Sanzaar, RugbyPass has rights to Super Rugby and Tri-Nations Rugby, among other content, in 60 countries (39 of them exclusive) across Asia-Pacific and Europe.
Sure, it does not have rights to stream matches in New Zealand, Australia or any other major rugby country, but it does offer its US$14.99/month streaming service in multiple countries where ex-pats lurk or the locals are starting to twig to the sport.
It operates in China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia, the Ukraine, Sweden, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and further afield (see a full list here).
As well as livestreaming games, RugbyPass also offers a step-down US$1/month service, which anyone can access, which serves up stats, articles, commentary and snippets of video - a Cricinfo of rugby, if you will.
Earlier this year, founder Tim Martin told the Herald that 25 million people a month were checking out around 2300 pieces of RugbyPass content created by a team of 40 (in its statement to the NZX on Friday, Sky TV put RugbyPass's total user base at 40 million).
Martin said companies research - and viewership of big matches like the Rugby World Cup final - indicated there were somewhere in the region of 100 million to 120 million rugby fans worldwide.
The founder did not have stars in his eyes. He estimated only two to three million were hardcore fans willing to pay for a monthly sub.
40,000 paying subs next year, founder predicts
In January, he said RugbyPass was profitable on 20,000 paying subs.
Sky did not offer any update on that figure with its NZX announcement.
And, talking to the Herald yesterday, Martin was wary of giving a figure.
But he did offer: "I could see us more than doubling that 20,000 number by early next year around Six Nations in Asia and our first Super Rugby season in Europe."
Martin said "In New Zealand there's a big punch up coming between Sky and Spark around rugby" (see video above).
Now, he's taken a side in that brawl. But even in the New Year, he was very much looking beyond the domestic market, and focusing on RugbyPass's role as a global aggregator - which often meant thinking beyond the All Blacks and Super Ruby.
"Rugby is a very fragmented sport," he said. "Rugby is not just Sanzaar. Our biggest driver of audience is in fact the Six Nations because there are more English fans for rugby in the world than anyone else."
The Kiwi streaming pioneer
Ad man Martin was the streaming pioneer in New Zealand.
He founded Coliseum Sports Media, bankrolled by rich-list Britomart developer Peter Cooper.
In 2013, CSM hit headlines when it grabbed three seasons' worth of English Premier League rights from Sky.
Games were streamed to Kiwis through a new service called PremierLeaguePass.
It was ahead of its time, and many Kiwi football fans squealed at technical glitches, or their broadband that just couldn't take livestreamed video (remember, this was during the very start of the Ultrafast Broadband rollout).
Its Auckland HQ, populated by Martin and four or five developers, was a rundown building awaiting renovation.
Spark came onboard and the telco and CSM formed a joint venture called Lightbox Sport for the second-half of the EPL contract, and the streaming service started to hit its straps.
But however many users it attracted (there were hints of around 10,000), it wasn't enough to warrant a bidding war with Dubai-based beIN Sport, which grabbed EPL rights for NZ, and many other territories, after 2016 (and of course Spark just grabbed them back, though this time on its own).
Instead of retreating back to the world of advertising, Martin took the lessons learned from PremierLeaguePass and used them to created RugbyPass.
In 2016, US media company Discovery Communications (whose marquee brands include the Discovery Channel) took a stake in his new venture.
Pre-acquisition stakes haven't been revealed, beyond Sky saying that Peter Cooper's US-based Cooper and Company majority-owned RugbyPass - which these days is based in London with offices in Singapore and NZ. Discovery was no longer in the mix, Martin said.
It isn't just ex-pats who subscribe to RugbyPass. One IT industry figure was quick to tell the Herald he uses it to watch Super Rugby, using a VPN (virtual private network) to subscribe to its service via Hong Kong. He says the quality's great.
But although Stewart made a dashing play, investors remained in a torpor. Sky shares did nudge upward, but remained in the narrow $1.20 to $1.25 range where they've been stuck for months - near a record low and a fraction of the company's market cap even two years ago.
For a big move in the stock price, we'll probably have to wait for a bit more meat around the Rugby Pass deal - and a vision for how Stewart will build the service from here that will justify the up-to-$62m purchase price, given its relatively modest paid subscriber growth at this point.
Investors could get a bit more colour when Sky reports its full-year result this Thursday.
Martin, naturally, sees scope for expansion.
"There's huge potential for growth here - not only on the network and subscription side of the existing business which is continuing to build well, but expansion into new, possibly bigger rugby markets and also the range of products and services we offer online to rugby fans," he told the Herald yesterday.
Does he worry about the likes of Amazon - whose Prime Video has already made forays into football, cricket and tennis?
"I really 100 per cent do not," Martin said. "My intel says they're not a threat in the rugby space any time soon. Those guys are all focusing on other things. And those other things are going pretty well."
He added, "We have the largest digital rugby network and audience in the world and that's growing fast. There's nothing like it in rugby, its unique in this regard, and there's many ways we can leverage that audience in the future. But having that audience is the key, and we do.
"And we've built it with content we create and we own and run it through our own proprietary platforms - and will continue to do so. So it's hard to take that audience off us, we have first-mover advantage; and that sets the business up really well."