As All Blacks fans log into the brave new world of Spark's streaming World Cup broadcast tonight, the Weekend Herald understands Sky is already preparing its bid for the next one.
Spark's test run last night — streaming the opening ceremony and first game at Tokyo Stadium — divided opinion. While several Kiwi fans were impressed with the service, some took to social media to lambast the company's performance.
Complaints ranged from freezing, lagging and glitching during the glitzy ceremony to differences in streaming quality across Aotearoa and significant delays.
In at statement issued at 1am last night, Spark said "almost 60,000" has streamed the game, which was also streamed live and free on TVNZ and while it acknowledged a problem with some Samsung TVs, it claimed that overall fewer than 1 per cent had issues.
Even more eyes will be on the service tonight for the All Blacks' opening match, against South Africa (which will only be live on Spark Sport) and a well-placed source has revealed the company already has a big competitor for securing broadcast rights to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
The Weekend Herald believes Sky and Spark may have already made initial approaches to World Rugby directly, or their sports marketing representative, IMG Media, about the 2023 event.
When questioned about these claims, Sky director of external affairs Chris Major would neither confirm nor deny if a 2023 broadcast bid had begun in some form.
"We don't normally comment on rights negotiations, but for this one, I can say that of course, we will be discussing Rugby World Cup 2023 when the time is right," Major said.
Spark and TVNZ won the rights to this year's event in April, 2018, with industry sources saying Spark paid $13m (or roughly double what Sky paid in 2015), with $1m of the cost defrayed by TVNZ.
Since losing out on those rights, Sky TV — New Zealand's self-proclaimed "home of rugby" — has changed its chief executive, with John Fellet departing after 27 years. His replacement Martin Stewart has made sweeping changes to management reportedly pushing out longtime director of sport Richard Last.
"We dropped the ball," Stewart said in a reference to his company's loss of various sports rights before his arrival. "We're not going to drop it again." In July, Stewart even more overtly declared his willingness to acquire rights to key sports events at any cost. "If someone outbids us, they're going to go broke," he said.
Sky has reportedly lived up to that claim since, with an inside source saying they have put up a $400 million offer to NZ Rugby and Sanzaar for the next five-year cycle of the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby. The spend would include other All Black tests and provincial Mitre 10 clashes.
Sky rugby commentator Tony Johnson said the aggressive approach from Stewart for sport content since taking the helm has had a positive effect on the morale of Sky staff.
The opening ceremony was a colourful spectacular of lighting, dancing and drumming and ended with 2015 World Cup-winning Al Black captain Richie McCaw handing over the Webb Ellis Cup.
In response to fan-reported issues with the service last night, Andrew Pirie, Spark'scorporate relations lead, said that the platform was performing "extremely well" and that issues were limited to "a tiny fraction" of individual customers.
"There are no systemic issues with the platform and we're delighted with how the network is performing. We've had literally a few dozen individual customers with device concerns and glitches and we have been helping them through it."
It came hours after Spark sent letters to some customers telling them they didn't have enough broadband capacity to stream the games. It read: "You recently took up our Broadband Plan offer, which included a Spark Sport Rugby World Cup 2019 Tournament Pass. Unfortunately, [your] internet connection isn't fast enough to stream live sport, so you'll need a new plan." They seemed to be subject to a last-minute upsell after being sold a substandard connection.
Spark said the problem arose because of a last-minute rush from fans to sign-up and as a result it had to "step-up cross-checks".
Spark acknowledged that not all homes — including more than 40,000 rural homes — had good enough broadband to stream the Rugby World Cup.
Spark began selling Tournament Passes for an early-bird rate of $60 in May, and is now charging $90 to watch all 48 games. Between June 17 and September 12, it offered a free Tournament Pass to new broadband customers, or existing customers who renewed a contract or upgraded their plan.
In anticipation of further issues, Spark told the Weekend Herald it had increased its resources to Spark Sport's care team.
Spark has assured that if a World Cup match stream were to crash, games will be diverted to their broadcast partner TVNZ's Duke channel "within a few minutes".
Spark's spokesperson said they were "confident we've done everything we could do to ensure customers have a good viewing experience throughout the tournament".