COMMENT:

It's now conceivable that Spark could launch a bid for All Blacks games or Super Rugby.

Formerly, Sky TV's near-monopoly on outside sports broadcasting facilities has been regarded as key plank in its fortress as it seeks to defend its sports rights.

But that's changed yesterday with Spark announcing a new deal for local rights to the FIH (International Hockey Federation) series, including local games.

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While hockey is a minority sport, the deal is notable because it will be Spark's first foray into local sports production - in partnership with NEP, the world's largest outside sports broadcaster. NEP set up an NZ office last year.

Spark says by positioning itself as the host broadcaster for FIH games, it's "demonstrating ambition to become a key player in the local sports market."

The telco yesterday started taking sign-ups for its new service at www.spark.co.nz/sport.

Spark also named its technology partner for streaming live sport.

The telco's technology partner for its Spark Sport service - which will be used to stream the Rugby World Cup 2019 and other events in Spark's growing sports stable - will be iStreamPlanet, which currently supports streaming for the Super Bowl, the NBA League Pass and the Olympics.

Signing a gold-plated partner like iStreamingPlanet will help address concerns about streaming wobbles. But Spark still faces the larger problem that at least 15% of the population (and probably a lot more) won't have ultrafast broadband by Rugby World Cup time.

Yesterday also saw something of a shift in alliances as new Vodafone NZ chief executive Jason Paris told the Herald his company was already in talks with Spark about adding Spark Sport to Vodafone TV.

Many pundits had presumed Vodafone would remain tightly tied to Sky TV, despite the pair's merger being blocked. But its new boss has new thinking. Paris says Spark successfully streaming the Rugby World Cup would be good for New Zealand.

Paris acknowledgd there could be complications to resolve with Vodafone's wholesale contract with Sky, which he acknowledged had a number of restrictions relating to non-Sky content.

On October 25, Spark bolstered its sports lineup by winning three-year exclusive rights to the Formula 1.

Pricing has yet to be announced, although the telco has already displayed a robust appetite for charging, with MD Simon Moutter raising the possibility that a Rugby World Cup pass will cost around $100.

Spark has recently built a portfolio of sport, outbidding Sky TV for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, regaining English Premier League rights for three seasons from next year, and securing Heineken Champions Cup rights to European rugby.

Spark began taking registrations of interest for its new Spark Sport platfom this morning. Image / Supplied.
Spark began taking registrations of interest for its new Spark Sport platfom this morning. Image / Supplied.

At Sky's recent annual meeting, chairman Peter Macourt stressed that not all the country would have ultrafast broadband by the Rugby World Cup.

Macourt said Sky's ability to reach the whole country via satellite was a key advantage with sports bodies.

And although he did not name the telco, Macourt put the acid on Spark by reminding shareholders about the Fifa World Cup debacle in June - where a frozen stream saw Optus forced to refund all views and hand over all games to broadcaster SBS, delivering the free-to-air channel a bonus 1.2m viewers.

For its part, Spark has partnered with TVNZ and says it has a plan B if streaming fails. It has not detailed its plan but presumably it would involve handing off coverage to the free-to-air broadcaster if things go south.

At the AGM, Sky chief executive John Fellet reiterated that his company had pulled out of bidding for Formula 1 races for the next three years.

Fellet said a move to races at 1am and increased highlights on social media had pushed viewership to below 1 per cent of Sky subscribers - diminishing Sky's appetite to place a high bid.

Premier League and Heineken Champions Cup viewership was also in the faction-of-a-per cent range, he said.

On social media, a number of F1 fans had been hoping that no-one would pick up local rights - a turn of events they hoped would allow them access to the official Formula One app that is currently geo-blocked to Kiwis.

Spark's sports rights so far:

Rugby

Rugby World Cup 2019
Women's Rugby World Cup 2021
World Rugby U20 Championships 2019
Heineken Champions Cup

Football

Premier League
Manchester United TV

Motorsport

Formula 1 World Championships
Formula 2 Championship
GP3 Series
2019 Porsche Super Cup Series