COMMENT:

It's odds on you don't give a hoot about football - or "soccer." But stick with this story about my miserable morning anyway, because it will give you the willies about the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

For Kiwis who got up early this Thursday morning to watch the Boxing Day action in the English Premier League, it should have been a thrilling morning of football.

Instead, many were left staring at blank screens as Leicester pulled off a giant-killing 2-1 victory over Man City, Paul Pogba scored twice as Man U continued its post-Mourinho renaissance, Liverpool put four past Newcastle, and Spurs five past Bournemouth.

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I booted up BeIN Sports and happily watched the first 15 minutes of Spurs vs Bournemouth.

Then the stream cut out. I didn't think much of it; it's not unusual for streaming content to stutter or freeze occasionally even if (like me) you've got a fast fibre connection to the internet.

Any connection is only as strong as its weakest link and with streaming video content there are a lot of links in the chain, including the (sometimes under-powered) servers that send the video your way to your ISP and the wi-fi network around your house.

I restarted, and got to see a few more minutes of the game. But then the picture cut out again. And this time it was gone for the rest of the match.

I took to Twitter, and discovered it wasn't anything at my end. Fellow football fans Richard Gordon, Gavin Huet, Quentin Davies, Quinn Proctor, Mark Shaw and others echoed my anger.

You should care about our pity party because Spark's rights grab means a lot more sports content is going to be streamed next year.

And while I admire his moxie and desperately hope it goes well for him, I think the telco's MD Simon Moutter is taking a huge risk.

If Spark's stream cuts out during the 2019 Rugby World Cup - as happened to Optus mid-year during the FIFA World Cup - then New Zealanders' anger will know no bounds.

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Moutter would have to go into hiding.

New Zealand First would no doubt reanimate its private member's bill calling for sports of national importance to be broadcast free.

Spark's sporting ambitions would be in tatters and Sky suddenly in the box seat to hold onto All Blacks, Super Rugby and cricket rights.

Learning from Floptus

Moutter has counter-arguments.

He says a team from Spark visited Optus after its FIFA World Cup meltdown, and learned a lot.

Other sports (including Formula 1 from mid-March) will give Spark a warm-up, of sorts (I say "of sorts" because they'll be nothing like the crush of World Cup traffic, and virtual stress tests have limits.)

Spark's streaming partner, iStreamPlanet, has proved its chops globally with Formula 1 races, NBA games and other A-list sports.

And while Optus might have been crushed by 2 million Aussies wanting to watch the Socceroos' opening game in Russia, Moutter points out that in the UK, millions watched the England vs Croatia final online without any wobbles (at least 4.3 million watched the action live online out of a total audience estimated at 26.5m).

Yet online streaming for a mass audience is nothing new for UK broadcasters. They're battle-hardened.

266 days from the start of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Spark hasn't given us a release date for its Spark Sports app.

It has said there will be an update early in the New Year, but it needs to get a wriggle on.

It was good that we recently got an update about the platform's Spark Sport will support on its initial release, some time in 2019.

The telco said last week that Spark Sport will be available via web browsers, Apple iPhone and iPad, Android phones and tablets, Google Chromecast and selected Samsung TVs at first, with other platforms added over the coming months.

The tech-savvy will think Spark is cutting it fine.

The tech illiterate - and that's hundreds of thousands of rugby fans - will be asking questions like "What's a platform?" and "What's Chromecast?."

It's going to be a long-finicky process getting a mass audience up-to-speed. Countless support calls about bad Wi-Fi and other head-scratching glitches lie ahead - along with the question of what will happen for households who just don't have a good enough internet connection for streaming video, however willing they are to pay $100 or so for Spark's stream.

Many will be borderline. And even when everything's good, a stream just gets gremlins. While it was working this morning, I still found the BeIN stream of Spurs vs Bournemouth was stuttering a little on my one gig fibre connection, and I kept half a jealous eye on another EPL game (Leisceter vs Man City) which was broadcasting seamlessly on Sky.

Plan B

Moutter says his company does have a plan B.

He says it won't be revealed until closer to the World Cup.

But, plainly, it will involve handing over all coverage to free-to-air partner TVNZ if things go south, just as Optus turned to SBS across the Tasman.

Optus' backup plan meant a couple of million Aussies could watch the Socceroos on broadcast TV without interruption, but it also saw the Aussie telco obliged to refund everyone's money and sustain considerable brand-damage. Six months on, it's still commonly referred to as Floptus.

What the heck is it all costing?

So there's a lot to keep Moutter awake as he stares at the ceiling at 2am.

But there's also a lot to give shareholders the willies.

Spark's foray into sport is looking increasingly ambitious as it piles on more and more codes (NBA basketball and WRC are among the latest).

Investors know that a foray into football has proved relatively successful for British Telecom since 2012.

But they will still be nervous about whether Spark can make the Rugby World Cup work from such a small run-up.

And, more, they'll be wondering, "What's it all costing?"

Moutter says Spark won't reveal what' it's spending on sports rights, and its streaming service, until its first financial results after the World Cup - meaning likely not until some time in February 2020.

Many fingers will be chewed during the wait. To avoid the same fate as Jose Mourinho, Moutter will have to hope for smooth streaming during 2019 - and to somehow pull off the feat without blowing the bank. As they say in sports, that's a big ask.