COMMENT:

Spark Sport's coverage of the Rugby World Cup started with a "gaffe" – or what was initially thought to be one at least.

"We'll take a quick break here on Sky Sport," were the words heard by a few on social media from Spark Sport commentator Scotty Stevenson, who previously worked for rival Sky Sport. A quick rewind of the tape – and a timely reply from the man himself – would reveal that there was no awkward mistake at all, just a mishearing.

Stevenson – a consummate professional who takes pronouncing the names of players correctly as seriously as he does rugby analysis – would end up nailing his first showcase at the World Cup, the opening match between Japan and Russia. It turns out, so did his new employers – for the most part.

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Rugby fans should be excused for mistakenly hearing that old familiar brand after being subject to years of a sports rights monopoly. But Spark Sport arrived this year supposedly as a forward-looking alternative to Sky Sport and, like any new comer threatening to disrupt the seemingly calm waters of the New Zealand sports media landscape, has been met with anger and frustration.

But from my home in central Auckland, where we're lucky enough to have ultra-fast broadband, Spark Sport's first World Cup test was generally a success, with no glitches or streaming issues, and solid coverage from the newly assembled broadcast team.

Sparks fly

There were, of course, many complaints. Within a few minutes into the official opening ceremony at Tokyo Stadium last night, dozens of rugby fans took to social media to express their frustrations with complaints ranging from freezing, lagging and glitching.

Spark would later respond by saying the platform was performing "extremely well" and the issues experienced were limited to a "tiny fraction" of customers.

"There are no systemic issues with the platform and we're delighted with how the network is performing," Andrew Pirie, Spark's corporate relations lead, told the Herald.

"We've had literally a few dozen individual customers with device concerns and glitches and we have been helping them through it."

But that's the fundamental issue with Spark's foray into sports streaming: The absence of a "systemic issue" – if Spark is telling the truth – doesn't change the fact that there are thousands of New Zealanders who simply can't stream video at a standard needed for live sport. Thousands more feel alienated by the new, and sometimes complicated, technology.

A Japanese fan. Photo / Photosport
A Japanese fan. Photo / Photosport

This is what has angered many fans. The initial promise of the internet (and consequently streaming) – universal access, the democratisation of voices, giving everyone a seat at the table – has been proven time and time again to be a lie.

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The complaints received by Spark came just hours after some customers received a bombshell letter – on the day of the World Cup opening game – informing them that the broadband at their addresses weren't up to snuff, despite being sold a World Cup Tournament Pass with the deal they initially signed up to.

Something that is also worth noting is that the seamless performance experienced by many others, including myself, was during a match that was also broadcasted live on TVNZ – something that won't be the case tonight when the All Blacks face the Springboks which will attract significantly more viewers and put more pressure on the platform. (There were also reports of some audio sync issues experienced by both TVNZ and Spark Sport customers during last night's coverage.)

But on the other hand, Sky has been no company of the people either. Regardless of what either Spark or Sky say, there is no such thing as genuine corporate goodwill in the age of late capitalism.

Use the NZ Herald's My All Blacks Ratings app to have your say during the Rugby World Cup 2019.

Sky has held sports rights in New Zealand and charged a premium price for so long that there are entire generations of fans, who may not have been able to afford Sky TV or had access to it, that haven't had the full experience of watching their choice of game live at the Rugby World Cup or the Olympics, let alone live All Blacks tests.

The arrival of streaming, and a genuine competitor in the market, gives fans a smorgasbord of sporting options instead of an all-in-one bundle, and more importantly, flexible and affordable prices – invaluable for many in the era of sports and pop culture over-saturation.

The emergence of Spark Sport, whether it succeeds or not, has pushed Sky to do better. It's resulted in a drop in prices for Sky customers and a pretty good sports streaming service, which was launched in August.

Like it or not, Spark is ultimately a good thing for the development and preservation of sport in New Zealand – something that has many sports administrators worried – simply by virtue of creating competition and breaking the monopoly. And streaming, as shown by a NZ on Air report released last year, is also quickly becoming the main way Kiwis watch TV.

The recent uproar around the sports broadcast environment has never been about Sky vs Spark. It's about New Zealanders getting fair and easy access to the thing they love, live sport, and both companies could do better in that department.

Sumo leads the way in Japan

Kotaro Matsushima of Japan is congratulated by Rikiya Matsuda. Photo / Photosport
Kotaro Matsushima of Japan is congratulated by Rikiya Matsuda. Photo / Photosport

The coverage was by no means perfect, but there were plenty of positives led by 'Sumo' Stevenson – who most rugby fans will already know quite well from his work with Sky. If the great Grant Nisbett, the voice of All Black rugby, is Steve Hansen, then Stevenson is Scott Robertson.

Joining Stevenson in the commentary box was All Black World Cup hero Stephen Donald, who was perhaps the biggest revelation from Spark Sport's coverage. Donald worked really well with Stevenson, and offered succinct and insightful analysis throughout the game. The duo offered a more toned down approach to sports commentary and let the game speak for itself when it needed to, as exemplified by Stevenson calling a Japan try: "There's a lot going on here. I'll let the pictures tell the story. And I'll let Matsushima score a hat-trick."

Coverage in the studio from the polished and charismatic James Gemmell, along with Kristina Sue, Jon Preston, Isa Nacewa and injured All Black Damian McKenzie, was also impressive. There were plenty of familiar personalities on the ground like Graham Henry and Keven Mealamu, but also fresher faces to rugby fans like sideline reporter Kimberlee Downs.

As a whole, the coverage felt on par to the usually excellent coverage we've come to expect from Sky. And for me at least, the overall experience felt very much like I was watching traditional TV – old yet new.

Change, what may feel uncomfortable or jarring at first, isn't always a bad thing. Now for the real test...


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