Sky TV has rebooted its streaming sports service with Sky Sport Now. It’s a new app for phones, computers and tablets offering 12 dedicated sports channels. It will replace Sky’s Fanpass from August 1.
At the same time Sky will start broadcasting a dedicated sports news channel. It will have local news and have local presenters. It will also pull material from around the world. This includes bulletins from Fox Sports News Australia and Sky Sports News UK.
The revamped streaming app will have dedicated channels for rugby, golf, cricket and football. Sky will add two ESPN channels and the new sports news channel to the mix. There will also be pop-up channels for major sporting events.
Better everything, high definition
Sky CEO Martin Stewart Sky Sport Now is the first evidence of the company’s new focus on online streaming.
Well yes. It’s also the first evidence that Sky is fighting back against Spark Sport. For months it has looked as if it had no answers, nothing practical to respond with.
The new app addresses one of the weaknesses of the old four channel Sky Fanpass by giving users access to replays and on demand content. There will also be links to statistics on games and individual athletes.
Pricing for Sky Sport Now includes a weekly $20 pass and a monthly $50 pass. Customers who sign up for a year pay $40 a month.
Sky Now competes with Spark
Elsewhere Stewart told Chris Keall at the New Zealand Herald Sky will be a more aggressive bidder when buying sports rights. He says: “If someone outbids us, they’re going to go broke”.
Of course he is talking about Spark Sport.
This is where things get interesting. In round numbers Spark’s revenue is about four times Sky’s. It has relatively little debt, which means it can access cheap money to invest in new products and services.
So, on one level Spark appears to be a formidable opponent. In theory, it could easily outbid Sky for key sporting rights.
Yet Sport is only a small part of Spark’s business and it most definitely not the main game. Apart from anything else, Spark is about to embark on building a 5G mobile network. This could cost the thick end of a billion dollars over the next decade. There are other calls on its funds. Spark is multi-faceted business.
Investors might not be happy if Spark gets into a high stakes bidding war with Sky over sport.
Sport is central to Sky’s business. That’s likely to be even more the case in future as seemingly unstoppable streaming services like Netflix chip away at the other parts of its business.
Sky doesn’t have much of a future without access to a solid cross section of popular sport programming.
By signalling its willingness to outbid Spark for key sports codes, Sky is warning its rival’s investors that the costs could escalate. It is in effect asking if they have a stomach for the fight ahead.
This is not mere posturing. Spark has already blinked with other products that were part of its move into digital services.
The company is looking for partners to share the risk with its Lightbox service. You can take it as read Spark would sell Lightbox at the drop of a hat if there was a realistic offer. Spark also recently closed its Morepork security business.
Digital services like Spark Sport may not be as central to the company’s long-term plans as it has previously said.
There’s another clue for Spark watchers following the Sport project’s progress. Spark is now giving away its Rugby World Cup service to customers signing long-term contracts. This can be read as devaluing the brand, or it could be read as using sport to support the main business.
Room for two?
There can room for two New Zealand streaming sports companies if they can both get the mix right.
Spark doesn’t have enough in its current line-up to be a must-buy service. The Rugby World Cup is a one-off. English Premier League is a niche, albeit a fanatical one with an audience willing to pay.
It needs a long-running, popular, season-long competition, not just a few weeks of a cup tournament.
In effect, Spark needs main rights to at least one of Rugby Union, Rugby League and Cricket. Seeing as you asked, Netball is almost as important, but it can’t carry a channel on its own.
Sky, on the other hand, can’t afford to lose any of these major codes.
The long tail
This is not to say the other sporting codes don’t matter. There is a long tail. It helps to think of the big codes as being like anchor tenants in a shopping mall. They bring in the majority of punters who then stay on for the other options.
The acid test for Spark, indeed the acid test for New Zealand streaming sport is the Rugby World Cup. As Jeff Latch mentioned at Spark’s recent press conference, there will be unhappy people no matter how well Spark performs.
If the RWC is a triumph, Spark Sport can ask investors to loosen the purse strings building a bigger brand. If it’s a disaster, the project will be seen as a brief flirtation. Spark’s next move will be damage limitation and probably a face-saving exit from sport streaming.
Most likely the verdict will be somewhere between these two extremes. For some New Zealanders this will be more of a nail-biter than any action on the pitch.