COMMENT

Spark Sport's first weekend of English Premier League football - or soccer - if you must seemed to go reasonably well, bar a satellite glitch that hit West Ham vs Man City.

But there were still some fans who had problems with the stream - and emotions ran high on social media at times (see tweets below). When Netflix cuts out, you can always just watch TV and try again in a bit. When live action from your favourite team cuts out, it burns.

Spark recently said it expects 40 per cent of Rugby World Cup Tournament Pass buyers to pile on during the final days before kick-off. I still fear for the telco in that even a small number of people having last-minute problems that it could lead to a ferocious backlash.

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And even minor glitches could be amplified to howls on Twitter due to the cultural factor. That is, the folk who feel they are being pushed into new technology as the only way to see their favourite sport - and resent it. It will take time for them to acclimatise - time that Spark doesn't have.

On social media, many fans said Spark Sport's EPL stream was solid. But some weren't so happy.
On social media, many fans said Spark Sport's EPL stream was solid. But some weren't so happy.

Me, I was a happy camper on Saturday morning as the first game of the 2019/20 EPL kicked off - Liverpool vs the newly-promoted Norwich.

I watched the first-half in bed, on an iPad, then tumbled down the stairs to watch the second-half our television, using a $139 Freeview SmartVu widget to get Spark Sport onto my big screen (gadgets like the SmartVu, Google's Chromecast or Apple's Apple TV are a good way to turn a dumb TV into a smart TV if you don't have a Samsung, Sony or LG TV made after 2017 that supports the Spark Sport app already).

On both iPad and TV, the stream was smooth. In a blind test, I doubt if I could have picked it from the beIN channels on Sky TV that carried EPL games last season.

When I asked followers on social media how they were travelling, there was a mixed reaction. Some users on fibre, copper and 4G said everything was A-OK.

But a few just couldn't get the stream to play. And a number - who I new to be tech-savvy - had issues with motion-blur when the ball was flying through the air. At one point, Spark Sport's Twitter account posted a guide to adjusting motion settings on various brands of TV. If they do that that during an All Blacks game, they'll get shot.

One pain point seems to be video stuttering for some using Google's Chromecast.

Spark Sport recently chopped the video quality of its stream down from 60 frames per second to 30fps as a safety-net measure, because older Chromecasts (and many older PCs) struggle to cope with 60fps - but for some, there still seems to be an issue.

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Although chopped back to 30fps, the video is still at 1080p (or high definition) but many using Chromecast still though the video looked much inferior to Sky TV's beIN channels last season when they tried to cast it their telly "and I don't want to watch matches on my phone," said one viewer.

This morning, I set my alarm clock to watch Tottenham Hotspur take on Aston Villa.

I already had a sinking feeling, because our home's internet connection had stuffed out last night. And as of 4.30am, it was still down.

For some reason, I was just getting no Spark Sport video whatsoever over 4G on my iPhone so I hot-footed it into the Herald - where I was due to start at 6am anyway - and watched the second half in the office on a PC. And the stream was fine.

But the episode was an illustration that there are a lot of factors behind Spark's control, from network issues to Apple iOS upgrades at random times to problems with people's home wi-fi networks.

Overall, I'm a happy camper. I believe that streaming (be it through Spark Sport or Sky TV's Fanpass) is absolutely the future. I love having all 380 2019/20 EPL games live and ondemand and would never want to go back.

And I do want Spark Sport to do well, and I don't want to overplay its first-weekend EPL problems.

Although a minority of fans were furious, the level of negative chatter on social media was more relatively low overall.

And Spark Sport emailed me in a statement on Saturday: "The vast majority of customers who tuned in to this morning's Premier League matches live and on-demand had a great viewing experience. All of our performance measures tracked well and the feedback we've received through our channels and social media have been mostly positive.

"As the games had our largest number of viewers to date, we're really happy with how it went. We encourage the small number of customers who may have had device issues to get in touch with us so we can help them get ready for the next match at help.sparksport.co.nz."

Satellite glitch

This, morning, a spokesman added:

"All games went smoothly except viewers watching the West Ham vs Manchester City match will have experienced disruptions during the second half due to weather conditions impacting our satellite feed. Recognising this we quickly switched to an alternate satellite feed location meaning viewing was uninterrupted for all the remaining games overnight."

And, of course, Sky's satellite service was never perfect for the EPL (rain fade, anyone?) and beIN infamously managed to stuff the stream for all 10 games on the final day of last season.

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But there's still a feeling that Spark Sport is still too much of a beta product, or work in progress, as the Rugby World Cup looms.

I appreciate that Spark couldn't control the timing around Rugby World Cup negotiations over rights.

But things are too rushed. To still be adding support for major brands of smart TV in the final few weeks is really cutting it fine.

A key part of the problem is that Spark Sport can nail everything on a technical level, but the move from the comfort of a Sky TV decoder to streaming is a culture shock for many, and it's just going to take a lot of time for everyone in middle New Zealand to wrap their heads around it - certainly more time than there is available before RCW kick-off on September 20.

It would be much better if there was still six months to go before the RWC at this point, given NZ is very much a nation of two halves. Some have been using Netflix for yonks, and are comfortable with streaming. Others don't know Airplay from their elbow, and deeply resent being pushed into new technology as the only way to see every RWC game.

Some Spark Sport users will feel like they're being used as guinea pigs during the EPL, and the pending RWC as the telco gets its act together before its push to grab rights to the likes of Super Rugby.

The Rugby World Cup won't be the Premier League. Football fans have now where to turn if their stream falls over. Rugby fans can take solace that TVNZ will offer 12 RWC games free, including all of the All Blacks' pool games and their assumed quarter-final on a one-hour delay, and the semis and the final live.

And there are any technical issues with a Spark Sport-only game, the telco has pledged to transfer it to TVNZ within minutes (though with so many gadgets and ISPs and other links in the chain, it could be fiendishly tricky to gauge how many people are affected by any given glitch, and when the threshold is reached to throw in the towel).

I'm told that Spark's board demanded a comprehensive safety-net via TVNZ.

On the commercial level, however, some at Spark might be worried that the free-to-air element is too sweeping. Some of the non-technical rugby fans who used to ask me "What's a Chromecast?" now say their plan is to watch the pool games on delay and catch the semis and final live on TVNZ.

If that does turn out to be the case, then the RWC won't turn out to be the tipping-point that telco had hoped to get the hardcore Sky crowd into streaming.

Bare feeling

announced.

Stephen Donald, Damian McKenzie et al will have one key issue as they call games, however. Spark Sport will trail the live action in Japan by around 30 seconds - a bigger lag than broadcast TV, and one that will mean many fans will get developments through the likes of Radio Sport and Herald liveblogs before they appear onscreen.

Tricky cove, Johnny Streaming.