Spark Sport boss Jeff Latch interview: The winter codes on telco’s radar

Spark Sport are hailing their first international cricket season as a big success – now the digital sport provider is seeking a major winter code as an additional anchor for their offering.

When Spark Sport signed a six-year deal with New Zealand Cricket last year, it was a touchstone moment.

While both parties talked about an exciting future and engaging new markets, critics pointed to Spark Sport’s lack of production experience and the demanding nature of live cricket.

There were also memories of the technical issues and outages that came up during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the varying quality of fibre connections across New Zealand.

Most of all, it would be a mindset shift for cricket fans, with the sport covered by TVNZ for decades and since 1995 by Sky Sport. Some felt it was a dangerous step by NZC.

However Spark Sport boss Jeff Latch framed the summer as a multi layered success.

Production went smoothly, despite more than 70 Covid-related schedule changes and the service was “completely reliable, no issues with our platform [and] no major outages.”

Perhaps most importantly, Latch said the cricket audience embraced the coverage.

“The viewership numbers were really good,” Latch tells the Herald. “I don’t want to steal the thunder from New Zealand Cricket, because they are going to be releasing [it later], but [they] are terrific. We’re incredibly pleased with how far we’ve come in our first year.”

Latch said the partnership with TVNZ had paid off.

“You really start to see the power of free to air TV, when it comes back into one of New Zealand’s tier one sports,” says Latch. “They delivered some incredibly big numbers which we haven’t seen in any key sport in New Zealand for years and years.”

While reluctant to go into specifics, Latch said the cricket venture had “far more than doubled” the Spark Sport subscriber base. Additionally, 47 per cent of the cricket audience were under 34 years of age, justifying NZC’s play for younger viewers.

Across two years Spark Sport has steadily bolstered its portfolio, culminating in the cricket rights.

So what’s next?

“We would very much like to carry a tier one winter sport going forward,” says Latch. “The biggest [winter] sports on New Zealand television are typically rugby, league, netball and football. We have a really good position in football (English Premier League), but we would really like to build up one of the [other] three, as and when they become available.”

NRL seems the most likely target, as the current New Zealand contract (with Sky) expires at the end of 2022, with rugby (2025) and netball (2024) having longer lead times.

“What I would say [about the NRL] is that we are very interested in acquiring sports that meet two key criteria for us,” said Latch. “One, that it will bring in large numbers of viewers and two, that it will make commercial sense. So if the NRl ticks those two boxes, which you could well, then that would be something that we would be interested in.”

Latch admits the 2019 Rugby World Cup put Spark Sport on the map – “it brought such a large number of people into our platform who had never and probably would not have come on board a streaming service” – but wouldn’t confirm that they would chase the rights for the 2023 event in France.

“I can’t say really, it will depend on our assessment of where things sit.”

Along with Formula One, the English Premier League is Spark Sport’s biggest overseas based property. Those rights are not cheap – with the EPL’s tender process – but Latch says the product has delivered and they will be interested in another three year tranche from the 2022-23 season onwards.

“It’s gone extremely well for us,” says Latch.

Spark Sport has offered all 380 EPL matches live, as well as a wide range of highlights packages and magazine shows.

“We’ve absolutely extended and expanded the Premier League audience in New Zealand, over the last few years,” says Latch, claiming a larger viewership than was achieved previously on Coliseum or Sky.

Spark Sport has made a large footprint in the market. There were initially doubts about appetite of the telecommunications company to be a long term player in the sports broadcasting market, and Spark Sport was viewed by some as a boutique operator. But it looks to be here to stay, with 2,600 live events in the last two years.

“We’ve made a positive change in the New Zealand sports market,” asserts Latch. “The fact that we have made this market now competitive, where it hasn’t been competitive for the best part of 20 years is a really good thing.”

He points to the increased value for money “you can see all sport for less money that people would have historically paid for Sky alone” and the range and variety of content across all providers in New Zealand.

It’s easy to forget the historic level of Sky’s dominance. It wasn’t so long ago that almost half of Kiwi households had a Sky box, and aside from one-off events (2007 Rugby World Cup, Wimbledon etc), the pay television operator cornered the rights to just about everything.

“Everyone loved the idea that you could get all your sport in one place, but the reality is the world is changing and we have been a catalyst for change,” says Latch. “If you look around the world now, the trend is so strong to move towards streaming at pace. That’s where everyone is going, because of the inherent advantages of streaming for sport.”

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