RugbyPass boss Tim Martin is an evangelist for streaming sports over the internet.

He would be, of course. That's his company's bread and butter, and it's currently in the midst of a US$20 million raise.

Yet he still voices qualms about Spark's chances of streaming the 2019 Rugby World Cup without any problems.

He expects most will enjoy a faultless service. But he also says there's guaranteed to be some degree of grief.

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Martin, who has been in the sports streaming game since 2012, when he founded PremierLeaguePass, says he has huge respect for Spark, and in particular Jeff Latch - the TVNZ alumnus drafted in to drive the telco's sports streaming effort - and iStreamPlanet, the US-based streaming platform that Spark has engaged.

Internet full of gremlins

"They'll do a good job. If there's any company in New Zealand who could pull this off, it's Spark," Martin says.

"[But] my experience of streaming games live and exclusive over the past five or six years is that nothing's ever seamless.

"The problem with the internet is that it has no boss. You can't book your slot for when you want your event to go. It's the Wild West."

The internet is "full of Gremlins" he says.

Things just go wrong. An app for a particular model of smart TV stuffs out for an initially unfathomable reason; performance for people on copper lines degrades when it rains or a big software update glugs internet traffic, to give a few of his examples.

He says that at one point PremierLeaguePass (which used to be the rights holder for English football in New Zealand) was about to stream a key game - but on the cusp of the match, Apple released an iOS update.

iOS is the software that runs iPhones and iPads.

"No one could get the service and no one could pay for it or watch it until they updated their software," Martin says.

He adds that the rush to update iPhones and iPads also had the effect of generally glugging up the internet, slowing everybody's connection speed.

Apple never gives the exact timing for the release of a new iPhone, which is always accompanied by an iOS update for older models, but it has typically been in September or October, putting it smack in the World Cup timeframe.

A catalogue of streaming disasters

In more recent times, Martin notes, problems with CBS-owned Showtime's August 2017 stream of the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight prompted a class-action lawsuit from angry viewers.

His own RugbyPass service lost half a Six Nations game due to technical problems beyond its control.

In July last year, Australian telco Optus was humiliated when its FIFA World Cup stream failed, necessitating around two million refunds and the transfer of coverage to free-to-air broadcaster SBS.

And in August, Eleven Sports in the UK was lambasted in the press after its US PGA golf steam cut out just before what proved to be a winning putt, he recounts.

Cutting it fine

It is now just 245 days until the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but Spark has yet to name a launch date for its Spark Sport app (which will also be used to stream Formula 1, English Premier League football and a number of other sports that the telco has recently acquired rights to), though it has indicated it will be before the end of March (and it's now collecting expressions of interest via spark.co.nz/sport).

In software development and testing terms, that's cutting it fine.

Formula 1 races and Premier League soccer will be something of a warm-up for the Spark Sport app in the months before the Rugby World Cup. But their wee-small-hours times and relatively small audiences won't be any proximation of the strain and challenges of a couple of million people crushing in to watch a big World Cup game.

And regardless, Martin notes, even well-established streaming players have constant issues.

"DAZN, who are by far and away the global gold standard of online sports streaming; I mean they've got a business with 2000 employees, they've got 500 developers, they've built a lot of their own tech, they've spent literally billions of dollars acquiring rights and launching into major markets and they're the best at it bar none - even they've dropped games and had problems," Martin says.

"Particularly when a service is coming up for speed and they're bedding it down and it's recently out of the developers' gates. It just takes a while to land some of this stuff."

For all Spark's network smarts, Martin is still not confident its stream will play smoothly at his Auckland home, which does not have UFB fibre and won't have ultrafast broadband before the cup.

Joe User needs to do his bit - but won't

Apart from various factors outside Spark's control that can affect the internet, then there's Joe User at home.

A customer can often have problems with their home Wi-Fi network setup, or getting a stream from their internet to their regular telly.

"So much of the service relies on the customer doing a lot to get it sorted. They don't. Not all of them do," Martin says.

Netflix has had a hugely beneficial effect, helping to familiarise many with the ins-and-outs of streaming, he says. But he adds that there's still a significant chunk of the population who need to be educated - and that it will take time. He says watching the pattern of usage at RugbyPass, it often takes six to 12-month fumbling period before a user starts regularly streaming.

Martin does have some positives. He says Spark has done well to line-up TVNZ as its backup partner, so rugby fans won't miss out if things go south, minising PR damage (though there will still be financial damage; Spark has yet to reveal pricing, but MD Simon Moutter has said will likely charge around $100 for its World Cup coverage, and that his company plans to make most of its money from subscriptions rather than ads).

Spark has yet to reveal its backup plan, though it is widely expected to involve the transfer of coverage to TVNZ. As things stand, the state broadcaster is set to broadcast selected games.

Spark responds

"Clearly, no technology is 100 per cent foolproof," a Spark spokeswoman says.

"However, sports events – and many other types of live events – are increasingly being streamed successfully all over the world.

"Major sporting events - the Super Bowl, America's Cup, English Premier League, for starters - are choosing distribution via streaming platforms which demonstrates that there is sufficient value for their fans for them to adopt this new form of sports distribution."

RugbyPass boss Tim Martin says
RugbyPass boss Tim Martin says "So much of the service relies on the customer doing a lot to get it sorted. They don't." Photo / Leon Menzies.

Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders are already successfully watching TV or movies over streaming services like Lightbox, Netflix and YouTube, she says.

"We are using one of the world's leading specialist sports streaming platforms, iStreamPlanet – which has been tried and tested overseas - and we are of course testing locally, too.

"We have a great team who are working closely with distribution partners to ensure Spark Sport works well on their operating systems and devices. There will also be a web browser version of Spark Sport available, which would be a good back up in the scenarios Martin mentions, should those eventuate."

Spark has yet to give a launch date for its Spark Sport app, but says it will be before the end of March. The telco is now taking expressions of interest via spark.co.nz/sport (pictured).
Spark has yet to give a launch date for its Spark Sport app, but says it will be before the end of March. The telco is now taking expressions of interest via spark.co.nz/sport (pictured).

"We are preparing our network capacity for events like the Rugby World Cup and optimising our network as much as possible.

"Plus, we have set up an Industry Working Group which includes network operators, competitors and other industry players – and we are sharing technical information about the streaming service with them – so the whole industry can get their networks ready for Spark Sport generally, and specifically for the Rugby World Cup."

A team from Spark has also visited Optus in Australia to learn lessons from the telco's FIFA World Cup debacle.

The telco has not revealed what it has paid for World Cup rights, or the cost of gearing up to stream rugby and other sports. It says it will do so at its first financial report after the cup, which will likely be in February 2020.

A 'ho-hum' World Cup

Spark may have already had a brimful of Tim Martin from his technical theories, but the RugbyPass founder also has an opinion about how the Rugby World Cup in Japan will be received by fans - and it's not good.

"Having been there, and having had a look at the stadiums, I think it's going to be an okay tournament," he says.

"I'd liken it to the 2007 tournament in France, where people can't even remember who won it [if you need your memory jogged, it was the Springboks].

"Japan got it on the back of hosting the semis and the final in the brand new Olympic stadium [but] that's not going to be completed in time so they have to move it back to a 20-year-old stadium that's not fit for purpose."

With its running track, the Nissan Stadium in Yokohama just doesn't have rugby ground feel, Martin says. He bluntly dismisses it and other venues as "s*** stadiums."

"Japan is fantastic. People will go there and have a fantastic time, but I suspect the World Cup atmosphere and the rugby experience will be a little bit ho-hum next to what the UK was - which I thought was an incredible tournament - and New Zealand before that, which was magical," he says.