Sky TV boss Martin Stewart has shed some light on New Zealand Rugby's plans for a local Super Rugby competition amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying that the revamped event could also include an international element.
Sky, along with its rugby broadcast partners NZ Rugby, have been working hard to create some form of meaningful competition to screen for its sports subscribers as travel rules and gathering restrictions continue to cripple the sports industry - and consequently Sky.
NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson revealed this week that the governing body are working on a New Zealand-only competition featuring the five Kiwi Super Rugby sides, which is likely to be played across 10 to 12 weeks from April.
An Australian version of the Super Rugby competition, which has seen a recall of the Western Force, was confirmed on Friday.
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Details of any proposed New Zealand competition have yet to be revealed, but Stewart said the possibility of an "overseas element" is also on the table according to his discussions with NZ Rugby.
"We are obviously seeing some people who no longer wish to subscribe to the sports channels," Stewart told Jim Kayes on Radio Sport. "I'm hoping that the Super Rugby teams will be back in action shortly in New Zealand. We're very excited about that. We've been working closely with New Zealand Rugby.
"It's going to be a local New Zealand team-based competition. There are a couple of alternatives that will depend on how things develop in terms of travel bans etc. as to whether or not there is an overseas element towards the end or whether it remains purely a New Zealand-based competition.
"But either way, we're hopeful that working closely with New Zealand Rugby, we'll be able to see some great action between all of the Super teams in New Zealand."
Any form of rugby competition would be a commercial life-saver for both NZ Rugby and Sky, with the latter having seen its share price drop rapidly over the past week or so. NZ Rugby, who has a five per cent stake in Sky thanks to their broadcast deal, would also be in a deeply precarious financial situation if the competition wasn't to go ahead.
Stewart admitted that the current climate has been a difficult time for the company, especially with most of its sporting portfolio forced to be postponed or cancelled due to the pandemic.
"We are a vital cog in the, currently you'd have to say, fragile sports ecosystem in New Zealand," he said. "Obviously the funding that we're able to provide through the subscriptions that New Zealanders pay for the service is an extremely vital part of the funding system that codes across the country operate within.
"So we're trying to balance the needs of our customers with the needs of our partners."
One way that Sky has attempted to discourage sports customers from leaving its service has been to offer free upgrades to other parts of Sky's entertainment content, like movies. Sky's main competitor Spark Sport announced this week that it was offering the public free access to its platform during the coronavirus crisis.
"What we have done yesterday is we've written to all of our customers and they've received those emails either yesterday, today or tomorrow, giving them a complementary three months upgrade package to something that they don't currently take from Sky - either a Sky movies package or the Sky entertainment package or some pay per view movie opportunities as well."
Stewart, whose company employs over 1000 people, sidestepped a question about the possibility of stopping funding to sports governing bodies like NZ Rugby if things like the proposed local Super Rugby competition failed to materialise, but didn't deny the possibility of it happening.
"[It's a] juggling act. We need to carry on the conversations with our various partners which we're doing on a daily basis. We're hoping that we can get them all back in action at some point in some form. And it's far too early to tell how things are going to play out in the longer term.
"Our first priority has been our people and our second priority has been our customers and our sports partners."
Disclosure: Radio Sport presenter Jim Kayes is employed by both NZME and Sky TV