Spark's move to acquire the English Premier League rights in New Zealand could be just the beginning.

As reported in yesterday's Herald, Spark are believed to be close to securing the EPL rights for the next three years, starting in August 2019.

It's not necessarily a changing of the tide, but more a sign of the times.

The experience in overseas markets shows that telecommunications companies often become big players in the sports content domain.


New Zealand's small population is a limiting factor, but it doesn't mean that it can't happen here to a similar degree.

The EPL seems like the perfect anchor for Spark, as they make their foray into the sports market.

It's captivating content, with storylines across each week from August to May.

It's also slickly produced and attracts diehard, loyal fans. And New Zealand's ever-increasing immigration numbers — mostly from countries where football is a top tier sport — will only grow the EPL's popularity here.

It feels like local football fans are now ready to watch the action from Anfield, Old Trafford, and Turf Moor via a streaming service.

Coliseum's push into the market in 2013 was, in hindsight, just a bit too early.

The talk of separate devices, cables, enhanced data plans and wi-fi befuddled many, with a common complaint that people didn't want to watch football 'on a computer screen'.

That's changed.

The rapid uptake of Netflix since March 2015 has changed the parameters in this market, with the US-based service even being watched in retirement homes on Smart TVs - an incomprehensible scenario even a few years ago.

Spark, of course, have had the EPL rights before, via their joint venture with Coliseum, but didn't really make the most of it.

If they have another chance, they might do things differently.

The Australian model could prove a relevant one, with Optus paying a staggering amount for the rights in 2015 — said to be A$150 million — in one of the EPL's infamous blind auctions (and recently renewing for another three-year term).

It's an astonishing figure - football might be bigger in Australia than here, but it remains dwarfed by the AFL, NRL, and cricket.

Optus' sports offering is headed by the EPL, but also includes the NBA and NFL (via ESPN) and the UFC.

Access to the EPL content has previously been restricted to Optus customers — a controversial move — but will be opened up via Google Play later this month.

They'll broadcast all 380 matches live and on demand next year, and see it as a way to attract customers and build their brand.

Optus CEO Allen Lew said earlier this month that providing such content was a way to build an emotional connection with customers, away from just traditional telco numbers and pricing plans.

Spark could be contemplating a similar sports division.

Sport has always been a huge driver of subscription-based services; Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB took off in the mid-1990s thanks to EPL while Sky Television's success over the last 20 years has been thanks to rugby (and to a lesser extent the NRL).

It feels like sports content will become more important, as Netflix begins to corner the entertainment market.

Sky will continue to remain the biggest local player for some time, especially because of their unrivalled live sport production capabilities.

No other operator can compete with that.

But overseas-produced content with local appeal — like golf, tennis, Formula One or any of the big four US sports — will be eyed keenly by Spark and other operators in the next few years.

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