In other parts of the footballing world, Sky are vilified. Their involvement in football is seen by supporters as a corrupting influence, shifting kickoff times and fixtures to suit the global audience and relentlessly hyping the endless clashes of top-flight teams while only occasionally looking beyond them. Mitchell & Webb produced possibly the finest excoriation of its worst features in this sketch.
We’re now into the second season of Sky Sports coverage of the NZFC, known as the Stirling Sports Premiership this season. Compared to the first season there have been clear improvements. The Thursday night kickoffs have been binned in favour of Sunday, and the occasional Saturday game. With the regular season concluding a fortnight ago, the scheduling of games indicated both semi-final games would be live on Sky.
This year there was no problem with Auckland City again hosting a semi-final, taking on Hawke’s Bay United in a gritty 1 – 0 to the home side. But as soon as the fixtures were announced, there were rumblings of disquiet about Team Wellington’s home semi-final.
It looked, initially, as if Team Wellington would be moved to the Westpac stadium and the semi-final be played as the curtain-raiser to the Wellington Phoenix v Newcastle Jets game. Understandably, Team Wellington had a strong preference to play at their training and home ground rather than the more expansive turf of the Cake Tin.
Sky’s issues were twofold. First of all, Dave Farrington Park has the same tight sidelines that are a feature of most of New Zealand’s football grounds. The restricted viewpoint from the sidelines required extra logistical input to get a clear view of the whole pitch, like the scaffold at Kiwitea Street. Secondly, as a suburban ground, Sky cited the need for a consent from Wellington Council for parking their Outside Broadcast vehicle outside of the ground. We have emailed WCC for comment on this, but haven’t had a reply at time of posting.
This provoked a reaction from supporters of Team Wellington and other NZFC clubs. It was reported at the beginning of the season that each club in the Stirling Sports Premiership paid a $30,000 fee to Sky Sports to televise games. Games were scheduled for broadcast before the season had kicked off, which included both semi-final games. Finding out that Sky couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfil their part of the deal was disappointing.
Sky’s business model has been under pressure from various factors in the last few years. The rise of streaming, the increased cost of certain rights (including those of European Football) and a sharp decline in subscribers have all been reported. They were about to face a more terrifying challenge though. Patrick Barnes.
Stepping in with a laptop, mobile phone and video camera – Patrick offered to stream the game live on YouTube from the sidelines. It’s not the first time this has been tried in New Zealand football, Birkenhead United attempted a behind-goal angle of one of their Chatham Cup games last season, raising echoes of the first televised game in history which utilised a similarly unhelpful angle.
Tuning in on Sunday afternoon, viewers were greeted with a reasonably decent feed of the game with a clock and scores up in the left hand corner. That was already an improvement on the rather dire feed from the Fiji v All Whites game the previous day, although the emphatic commentary – tending towards the R18 as the game wore on – was about par in terms of entertainment.
At one point the stream had over 1,000 viewers and post-match the video was racking up a view count that most Stirling Sports Premiership highlights videos could only dream of. The footage found its way onto news reports of the game, featuring on the Stuff website that evening (it has since been removed) – something which could not have happened with the usual Sky timetable of televised highlights on Tuesday and YouTube highlights on Wednesday after the game.
At which point, reality set in. Within hours of the match ending, Team Wellington were issued a takedown notice from Sky Sports for infringing their exclusive rights to broadcast the game. Unlike other streaming controversies, this didn’t involve the illegal broadcast of Sky’s own footage – they had a camera at the ground to capture highlights. Instead this was Patrick’s own footage of the match, filmed using his camera.
A few hours later an edited highlights of the match was made available through the Yellow Fever, again drawing hundreds of views. This time, Patrick was threatened with prosecution if the video remained online. It too was taken down.
All in all, a bit rough. Sky may claim the exclusive broadcast rights to the match, but they did not exercise those rights – rights which they didn’t pay for. As Barnes says,
“Sky Sport have no interest in broadcasting every game in the league, and to be fair, neither should they. So why not allow clubs to stream their non-televised games? NZF have backed themselves into a corner with this TV deal, it requires very little equipment to stream matches over the internet that otherwise would have had no coverage.”
Team Wellington made alternative arrangements for the game to be shown, because they deemed a National League semi-final to be of interest enough to their supporters who couldn’t make the game and the Waitakere supporters who couldn’t travel to Wellington.
They were right. The game was a barn-burner, a classic, a perfect example of two teams desperate for the win and throwing everything at each other in search of it. It would have made for a fantastic advert for Sky Sports had it been on TV, and was pretty good via a fixed camera on YouTube. Take that, Sky!
That’s unfair though. Sky Sports offer multiple cameras, commentary, graphics and analysis that a fixed camera cannot match – as well as creating the highlights packages and providing a platform for viewing that’s accessible. Their broadcast of the Chatham Cup Final 2016 was a triumph and brought the game to a wider audience (even if they haven’t uploaded the highlights to their youtube). Their coverage of the Stirling Sports Premiership games this season has improved in quality on the previous year, even if they are constrained by the prescriptive broadcast schedule they set the previous September.
But in this case, Sky couldn’t do the job and Team Wellington and Patrick could. That point was made by Sky Sports and Radio Sport commentator Jason Pine, discussing the issue with aggrieved Team Wellington supporters who had shared the highlights only for them to vanish. “It wasn’t Sky’s decision not to show the game, they wanted to” and that the footage belonging to Patrick “…makes no difference, Sky have exclusive rights to broadcast the Stirling Sports Premiership, but can grant exceptions like Sunday” even though they were paid to have those exclusive rights, saying ‘…they will be showing the highlights, hard to argue that you should be allowed to do that for free’.
Hard to argue, but definitely arguable. Perhaps their heavy-handed response, protecting the broadcast rights of something they couldn’t broadcast themselves, seems a bit unfair given the situation. Unless, of course, they’re a bit worried that a precedent has been set, given how streaming has eaten into their market share already.
Patrick put the data usage of streaming the full match, half-time, extra time and penalties at 1.5 gigabyte of data. With mobile broadband packages, it’s more than possible to stream 10 games for $14 per match. Add in the a laptop fewer than 18 months old, a DSLR camera decent enough to capture the game and a HDMI to USB port and streaming games or producing highlights of matches in the Northern, Central or South Island leagues suddenly isn’t that expensive. Certainly cheaper than $30,000 a season.
“Sky TV haven’t paid a cent for the rights to the Stirling Sports Premiership, in fact NZ Football have to pay them to broadcast it. So NZF have signed the exclusive broadcast rights away for no cost? That’s a very NZF thing to do.”
NZF won’t like that. Then again they’re known for their sensitivity to potential criticism, which has stifled supporter engagement projects in the past. They’re certainly attempting to promote the game and attract investors to be able to take the visibility of football to the next level, their most recent link up involving ISPS Handa and former Prime Minister and noted football supporter John Key.
Barnes again, understandably annoyed,
“Sky TV have taken on a group of volunteer supporters who want to see the game grow in NZ and threatened them with prosecution. Certainly an interesting way for the organisation to create positive PR in a time when they are becoming increasingly irrelevant.“
Perhaps this is a positive thing though, a sign of the growth New Zealand Football desires so much. After all, a conflict between supporters, the football association and Sky Sports is what the big leagues, which NZF aspires to, has. And who knows, maybe this winter we’ll see a few Chatham Cup games streamed on YouTube – knockout football usually provides the competitive edge that ensures something worth watching. Maybe the newly sponsored ISPS Handa/New Zealand Football deal could spring for some equipment.
That is, if they don’t hand the broadcast rights over to Sky.
Categories: NZ Men's National League
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.