COMMENT:

Some of the most enduring images of this World Cup were of English fans huddled together in Kiwi pubs, watching live broadcasts of their team's unlikely run to the semifinal.

What's notable about this is that core viewer behaviour hasn't changed since England last reached this stage of the tournament in 1990. The TVs may be a little flatter and the shorts a little longer, but you ultimately had fans — whether in the pub or at home — fixated on a traditional broadcast that culminated in tears streaming down an English star's face.

It's significant because it shows the preference for major sporting events is still to flick the TV to the right channel and wait for the action to unfold. It couldn't be simpler — and few fans would see any point in changing something that works.

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This should send a stern warning to Spark as it looks to tinker with a good thing in the coming year.

The preference for broadcast isn't just applicable to football. Writing about the impact of streaming technology on the Super Bowl in the United States this year, marketing professor and industry provocateur Mark Ritson noted in UK publication Marketing Week that 98 per cent of the audience watched the game on traditional TV while only 2 per cent logged on to streams.

It's no wonder Ritson describes the supposed impending doom of television as the dominant way to watch video as part of "the giant bulls*** fairy tale about digital that marketers have been spinning for the past decade".

Sky boxes rule

Asked for World Cup viewing figures across devices, Sky was characteristically cagey, but did confirm that while some viewers had been watching via Fan Pass and the budget mobile-only options, the majority were viewing the games via their Sky boxes at home.

This World Cup was the first time I had forked out the $100 monthly subscription to access Fan Pass, and the service has been largely excellent throughout the tournament. But there were a few glitches.

While I could live with the requirement to enter my annoyingly long email and password into the Fan Pass smart TV app almost every time I wanted to log on, my blood pressure did touch an uncomfortable level when the second-round match between Argentina and France simply wouldn't play on the television — meaning we ultimately had to settle for the Macbook Air.

The point here is that digital tech can sometimes interfere with the viewer experience, adding steps where there previously were none and creating frustration.

A Spark spokesperson counters the view that Kiwis will become frustrated, saying that streaming gives viewers the flexibility not only to watch the games when and where they want, but also to choose pricing options that suit their budget.

Spark also believes the technical shift to streaming won't be as cumbersome as some anticipate.

"We acknowledge that for some customers there will be a transition period as they set up and get used to the new technology," the spokesperson said.

"But this is no different to people moving to Netflix, Lightbox or any other streaming or online service or, for that matter, the transition to satellite TV back in the day."

This may be true, but things didn't go all that smoothly across the ditch for Optus — and in messing with rugby, Spark risks driving a digital dagger straight into Kiwi heartland.

Customer-centric

The marketing buzzphrase of the moment is "customer-centricity" — a somewhat vague term that essentially suggests a business should make the customer's experience as simple and fluid as possible.

In this context, the advantage of digital technology lies in removing obstacles in the consumer's path to an experience or a purchase — not creating new ones.

Given viewers' continued preference to watch live sport via a traditional broadcast, Spark's decision to lock the World Cup behind a paywall looks a lot like the telco dragging customers to its house even though they don't want to go there.

This situation is essentially the reverse of what's unfolding at RNZ, with Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran continuing to push hard for the launch of RNZ+, including a TV channel, despite apparent reluctance from the public broadcaster's chief executive, Paul Thompson.

This week, during the announcement of RNZ's increased funding allocation, Thompson said consumers were more likely to be watching RNZ content on their mobile phones or tablets.

Thompson knows what his consumers like, and he sees no point in planting another tree in the free-to-air forest, only for it to later fall over with barely anyone having heard or seen it.

From the consumer perspective, it looks as though Curran's TV strategy might come too late, while Spark risks making the digital leap before the viewers are ready.

Betting on digital

The World Cup and customer centricity also provide a reminder of how important digital media have become to the TAB.

TAB spokeswoman Kate Gourdie told the Herald her team anticipates that the 2018 World Cup will rank among the top five sporting events in the organisation's history.

She says 85 per cent of World Cup bets were placed via online channels, as more punters opt for mobile and desktop options.

"The figures so far for the Football World Cup have shown that 55 per cent of the money bet during the FWC has been bet through tab.co.nz, 30 per cent has been through the mobile app and the rest has been bet through one of our retail stores."

The company's World Cup advertising has played directly into this shifting consumer behaviour, with a steady stream of targeted Facebook ads inviting users to take punts on upcoming games.

"We find that the interest extends well beyond diehard football fans," said Gourdie.

"As such, our Facebook ads are spread quite broadly, targeting Kiwi sports fans older than 18, which naturally tends to skew towards men."

TAB has been timing ads to run before all the games throughout the World Cup. Photo/Facebook.
TAB has been timing ads to run before all the games throughout the World Cup. Photo/Facebook.

As opposed to broadcast advertising, which reaches everyone watching the screen at any given time, Facebook also offers an advantage in being able to exclude consumers who have been identified as problem gamblers.

"We actively exclude these customers via Facebook audience exclusion tools based on their personal details. They are also excluded from all promotional electronic mailouts," Gourdie says.