Spark Sport passed its first major test over the weekend, streaming the Melbourne Grand Prix live without any major glitches.
Mid-way through raceday, I put out a shoutout on social media to see how Spark Sport users were faring with the services Apple and Android apps or viewing via sparksport.co.nz.
Spark MD Simon Moutter chirped back, "I'm watching on my iPad Pro Chris and it's fan-bloody-tastic. Admittedly I'm saying so with a quiet sense of relief."
The Spark boss later said, "Now casting to big screen via Apple TV and it's terrific as well."
Moutter was somewhat invested in the outcome, of course, but I only experienced one brief drop-out in coverage. Otherwise, the build-up and the race streamed smoothly in high definition on my iPhone and on a laptop running Windows 10.
Others had mostly positive experiences too (see a section of tweets below). Those who had issues were generally those trying to run Spark Sport on hardware that it doesn't officially support yet (the telco promises its app will be on an increasingly broad range of platforms in the weeks and months ahead).
There were a couple of issues noted.
One was that a static Sky logo appeared onscreen each time Sky UK (from whom Spark was drawing its video feed) went to an ad break. The first time this happened, I wasn't sure what was up. Was there an outage? Spark says at the moment, it's unable to put up a line to let people know there's an ad break on, but it's working on a fix.
Another was that it wasn't quite live. TVNZ's Duke channel - which was broadcasting the race as a fallback - was about half a minute ahead. Disparities in timing are common in this areas, as you'll know if, say, you've ever compared beIN Sports' stream to the beIN channels on Sky - but the lag did irk a few people. Still, if that's the biggest issue Spark faces, I'm sure they'll be very relieved.
A Spark spokeswoman said, "The nature of streaming services is that the stream takes slightly longer to route around the world and process into the format for every version of the app. All live events on streaming platforms experience a delay – usually around 30 seconds – in live content."
She added, "Naturally for a new service, the Spark Sport customer service team were hard at work over the weekend, helping customers to troubleshoot app set up and working through a range of questions. The large majority of queries were successfully resolved."
Stiffer tests to come
Of course, Sunday was a relatively modest test for Spark Sport, and its experienced US streaming technology partner iStreamPlanet.
No Grand Prix draws an All Blacks-level audience, let alone one when most of the nation's attention was, of course, elsewhere (even Moutter, for obvious reasons, had most of his attention on ongoing efforts to pressure social media sites and block rogue sites).
Spark would not say how many watched Sunday's race, but said 9000 have so far subscribed to Spark Sport (with no one paying anything yet; there's a 30-day free trial, so it'll be next month before we see how many convert to paying punters).
It's one thing to livestream a Grand Prix, but quite another to handle the crush as millions pile on for a key World Cup game.
And questions still linger about how Spark will cater to Kiwis without good enough broadband for streaming video, however good its app.
Still, it passed. And while Spark's head of sport Jeff Latch has yet to say if he's confident he could abandon the TVNZ backup for the next Grand Prix (Bahrain on March 30), indications are he must be close to making that call.
I did field one reader complaint about on-demand coverage taking a while to appear. Spark responded that it's aim is to get an on-demand replay available within four hours of an event. In the Melbourne Grand Prix's case, it was available within 10 minutes of the live coverage concluding.
Incidentally, Sunday's race was the first since the 1950s when a driver received a bonus point for the fastest lap.
When I got a sneak peek behind the scenes at Mercedes-AMG Petronas team on Thursday, chief race engineer Andrew Shovlin was in favour of most of the changes introduced this year, but had qualms about the fastest-lap bonus point.
"Drivers, while they are supportive of the team, they're not quite as supportive of the team as they are of themselves," he said.
He added that Mercedes star Lewis Hamilton knew how and when to drive within his limits.
In the event, it was the team's other driver, Valtteri Bottas, who took the lead in the season-opener and (according to Reuters) ignored instructions to play it safe.
It all ended well, as Bottas won the season opener and took the bonus point for fastest lap.
More comments from Shovilin here.