Spark's new Lightbox platform goes live – but TVNZ will broadcast Sevens World Cup

There has been evidence managing director Simon Moutter has ambitions beyond rugby.

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After a two-week delay (a mere nano-second) online development terms), Spark went live with an upgrade to its Lightbox service today (for desktop devices; smart devices will follow over the afternoon).

Lightbox now features movies for hire (it previously offered streamed TV series only) and there is a new kids option. 

But the most significant changes are under the bonnet.

There has been a re-platforming from Xstream to Brightcove,a provider that supports streaming of live sports and pay-per-view events.

Spark needed a beefier, more capable online platform after recently bagging rights to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

But, although the Lightbox platform is live, it's not about to get an industrial strength workout – even though a potential opportunity is just around the corner.

When Spark first announced it had gained World Cup rights, on March 28, managing director Simon Moutter emphasised the telco had 18 months to prepare for the mass live-streaming that it would entail (which, as we've seen from Sky Go, can be a fraught and complicated logistical challenge).

But a rival was quick to point out Spark had, in fact, signed a deal for a series of events; its package with World Rugby includes under-20 and World Cup Sevens 2018 events as well – and the latter kicks off in July.

It would be interesting if Spark used the Sevens World Cup as a warmup but today the company said it won't. Instead, the US-based tournament will be traditionally screened by free-to-air partner TVNZ during its July 20-22 run. It will be 100% TVNZ, with no Lightbox action. Every game will be screened live on TVNZ's Duke channel and streamed via tvnz.co.nz.

While streaming capability has been added with the move to Brightcove, Spark says it has yet to be implmented, and that it has yet to decide if Brightcove will be the platform for its World Cup streaming.

Sky TV NZ is taking heart from the fact that the frenzy for football rights in the UK — driven by new media player BT (Spark's equivalent in the UK) -- seems to have peaked. Its director of sport, Richard Last, also notes that neither Amazon nor Facebook have been seriously in the running for UK football, Indian cricket or NFL rights, which have all been recently up for grabs.

Speculation over EPL rights
Overnight there has been speculation Spark will bid for English Premier League soccer football rights. 

There has been evidence that Mr Moutter has ambitions beyond rugby. The Spark managing director has previously said one sport is not enough to make a streaming service; a portfolio of A-list codes is needed.

But his company is perhaps more likely to make a play for rugby league, netball or cricket before a return to the EPL (which briefly featured on Lightbox Sport, its joint venture with Coliseum Sports Media).

Bein Sport (a sports broadcaster spun off from Doha, Qatar-based, state-owned Al Jazeera) holds EPL rights for New Zealand (for the 2016/17 through to 2018/19 seasons) and sub-licences to Sky as well as providing its own streaming service.

Both Sky and Lightbox Sport bid for 2016 - 2019 EPL rights but were monstered out of the action by a bid from Bein that NBR understands was in the region of $12 million – or at least three or four times Sky and Spark's upper limit (Sky told NBR earlier today that 0.4% of its audience watch EPL games; it's a valued slice but not one it's about to lavish $12m on).

Bein, however, could place another out-of-orbit bit for 2020-2023 EPL rights.

Spark [NZX:SPK] 12-month share price performance.

Why pay so much?
There are a couple of theories about why Bein paid such an outsized sum for 2016-2019 EPL rights for New Zealand.

One is that it had an Asia-Pacific wide strategy, which inadvertently went array when it under-bid for Australia (where rights were won by a telco, Optus).

The other – which is not mutually exclusive – is that Bein wants to promote its worldwide presence as much as possible before the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by Qatar. Its political motivation and nationalism could well trump Spark and Sky's commercial aims for 2020-23 EPL rights.

Amazon and Facebook are also potentially in the mix for the EPL or indeed rugby, cricket or netball.

However, Sky director of sport Richard Last points out the pair have placed relatively modest bids or just sat out a number of recent high-profile sports rights battles: Most notably for EPL rights in the UK (which went to Sky TV and BT) as a new three-year deal was struck in the New Year) but also Indian Premier League cricket and certain NFL rights in the US.

Mr Last also notes that while the new three-year EPL rights deal is huge (Sky UK and BT paid a collective £4.4bn) it's still 16% less than the £5.1bn. After several auction cycles of prices being driven up hugely by new media competition (Sky paid just £5.1bn for 2004 to 2007), the frenzy seems to have peaked.

The Sky sport director still has plenty to worry about. Spark is going to either gain Super Rugby or All Blacks rights or drive the price up hugely for Sky if it fails. That battle could be some way off, however, Sky's Sanzar contracts run from 2016 through 2020.

Lastly, it's also worth noting that as with rugby (which spans a dozen contracts), football spans multiple leagues and competitions. Bein has EPL and Uefa games, but any true football fan will also want to watch FA Cup and FIFA World Cup gains, to which Sky has dibs.


RELATED VIDEO: Managing director Simon Moutter talks about his company's Lightbox and sporting ambitions, and more, after Spark's full-year result (Apr 11)

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