It came down to the wire, but they've got it out the door: Spark has made a beta (or test) version of its Spark Sport app live this morning - which will be used to stream Melbourne Grand Prix on Sunday (with prelims days Friday and Saturday) and, later this year, the Rugby World Cup.
Spark Sport can be accessed via Sparksport.co.nz or via iOS (iPhone, iPad) and Android apps (early this week, Spark said the Android version wouldn't get out the door in time for the Grand Prix, which would have left owners of Samsung, Huawei and most other non-Apple smartphones high-and-dry). But this morning it said a "fair wind behind us" go it over the line).
The Herald was able to have a quick look at the Spark Sport app earlier this week. It seemed user-friendly and streamed smoothly. But the $64,000 question (or perhaps $10m question) will be whether it can handle the pressure when tons of views pile in to watch a live event at once - many of whom who don't know Apple Airplay from their elbow.
To cover its bets, Spark is also making the Melbourne Grand Prix available through its free-to-air partner TVNZ's Duke channel.
Spark's head of sport Jeff Latch says he expects - and welcomes - bug reports during Spark Sport's first 30 days, which are free.
He does hope that it's sufficiently up to snuff by the end of the month that the Bahrain Grand Prix (starting March 31) can be offered through Spark Sport only without any TVNZ safety net.
Earlier, speaking exclusively to the Herald, Latch said the app would cost $19.99 per month and be an all-you-can-eat service that includes all of the codes the telco has signed so far, from motorsport to NBA TV to English soccer and European rugby (see full list below).
There's a single, glaring exception: the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which will be priced separately. Latch - a 23-year TVNZ veteran who joined Spark late last year - said pricing and other details around the Japan tournament will be revealed in April.
Latch says like any service, there will be bugs at launch, which is styled as a "beta" or test launch. Everyone who tries it will go on a one-month free trial, during which he says he hopes people provide feedback (the Herald suspects that will not be an issue; those who have problems will not hold back on social media).
But he hopes Spark Sport will be robust enough that the second race in the 2019 Grand Prix series in Bahrain, March 28-31) to be offered through the app only.
The Herald reported that Spark's fall-back plan if the stream goes haywire during the Rugby World Cup will be to shift a game onto TVNZ's Duke channel within five minutes.
Latch refuses to confirm that. He says Spark will detail its fallback plan in April.
To help build subs ahead of that date, a "freemium" model will see some content offered at no cost, even for those whose one-month trial has expired.
For example, Formula 1 practice sessions will be available via the freemium part of the site – but if you want to watch the qualifier and final race, you'll need to be a subscriber.
Spark got an unexpected boost last month, as rival Sky announced a price hike for its sports channels (although a parallel move to scrap its $9.99 a month HD fee could see some subs come out ahead).
Spark Sport will also add support Google Chromecast, a $70 gadget for getting internet-delivered content to a regular telly and Apple Airplay (Apple's technology for wirelessly beaming content from an iPad, MacBook or iPhone to a TV, as long a that TV has an Apple TV unit attached).
Latch says support for certain brands of Samsung smart TV will be added shortly after the initial launch. Support for LG, Sony and Panasonic TVs will be added down track, along with a version of the Spark Sport app for Apple TV.
With just over 200 days to go before the Rugby World Cup, there's not much "track" left to fill in those caps.
Despite widespread qualms from industry insiders, and high profile streaming failures at events from the FIFA World Cup last year to the Superbowl just gone, Latch maintains he's confident Spark's livestreaming of World Cup games will be a success.
He says services like Netflix and Lightbox have familiariesed many Kiwis with the ins-and-outs of streaming, but concedes a huge education campaign will be needed. Spark will have a dedicated Spark Sport helpdesk from early March.
One problem that the telco just won't be able to overcome is that not all New Zealanders will be on ultrafast broadband - that is, a good enough internet connection for streaming video - by the time the World Cup kicks off in September.
Latch, says 90 per cent will have good enough broadband by Cup time. Most experts would say that's an optimistic number, especially given the fact that only around 51 per cent of households within reach of UFB fibre have actually connected - and Chorus just doesn't have the manpower to connect everybody by September. It's resourced to finish the rollout by the end of 2022.
But even if it is 10 per cent who can't stream via Spark Sport, that's a big chunk of the population to miss out on All Blacks games. Latch says a plan for these people will be revealed in April. But given those who lack sufficient broadband will be dotted around the country in a miss-match with TVNZ's broad-strokes ability to regionally target content, a workaround is not immediately obvious.
Latch notes Spark has already committed to making the semi-finals and final available via TVNZ as well as its app, so no one will miss out on those games.
The state broadcaster will screen seven games. Those haven't been detailed, but will presumably also take in the All Blacks' pool games, which insiders expect TVNZ will screen on a one-hour delay.
Complications abound. For example, if Spark's fallback plan is to transfer games to TVNZ's Duke channel in the event of a streaming failure, how will it define a failure? It will be fiendishly difficult to gauge if an issue is affecting a few loudmouths who have taken to social media, or is hitting everyone with a certain brand of smart TV or, say, every customer of a certain ISP.
What percentage of viewers will have to be affected before Spark throws in the towel and transfers coverage to TVNZ? And who will make that call? Details will be revealed in April, Latch says.
For the time being, he's willing to say Spark will seek to minimise risks by streaming up to 1080 HD only, and not offer a 4K or ultra HD option, despite Chorus recently touting its network could support 4K, Spark has to be wary that any internet connection is only as strong as its weakest link - which will often be a person's creaky or poorly setup home wi-fi network.
Latch says Spark Sport will not - intially, at least - take advantage of lots of the personalisation features offered by its streaming partner, the Las Vegas-based iStreamPlanet.
The Spark Sport boss says iStreamPlanet was chosen because of its solid track record streaming A-list sports for major broadcasters and online services in the US and around the world, and because it could offer Spark all the tech it needed without having to build anything in house. Still, it will be baby steps, with iStreamPlanet customisation features turned on slowly, over time.
Spark is announcing its half-year result today, but has already flagged that it offers no detail on the cost of sports rights and setting up streaming.
Those numbers will be revealed at its first financial report after the World Cup, which is expected in mid-February 2020.
Spark Sport's March line-up
• FIH Hockey Pro League
• NBA matches, highlights and analysis
• FIA World Rally Championships
• Formula 1 Championships
• Heineken Cup Rugby
• Manchester United TV
• Liverpool FC matches and ancillary content
Spark Sport's line-up so far
• Rugby World Cup 2019
• Women's Rugby World Cup 2021
• World Rugby U20 Championships 2019
• Heineken Champions Cup
• Premier League
• Manchester United TV
• Liverpool TV
• Formula 1 World Championships
• Formula 2 Championship
• GP3 Series
• 2019 Porsche Super Cup Series
• FIA World Rally Championships
• NBA TV
• Hockey World Cup
• FIH Hockey Pro League
• Olympic Qualification
• NZ National Hockey League