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Spark lifts paywall amid live sports drought

Anthony Martial of Manchester United celebrates scoring their first goal during the Premier League match versus Manchester City (by Ashley Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

New Zealand telecoms operator Spark has opened up its platform for no charge for existing and new customers until May, after conceding that the impact of the coronavirus on the global sporting schedule has severely impacted its live output.

Over the last week many major sports bodies have been forced to postpone events, including three key Spark Sport clients in North American basketball league the NBA, motor-racing championship Formula 1 and football’s English Premier League.

Spark Sport has been priced at NZ$19.99 (€10.69/$11.72) per month (albeit a separate tournament pass had to be bought for the 2019 Rugby World Cup).

Head of Spark Sport, Jeff Latch, said Covid-19 has impacted the range of live events it can offer, adding that providing its channels and on-demand content free of charge during this time “feels like the right thing to do”.

Latch continued: “In practice this means we will stop charging existing customers for their subscription from their next billing cycle. Currently our view is that we will start charging again in May, but we will review this closer to the time.

“We also recognise a lot of New Zealanders are either in self-isolation or limiting social interaction at the moment and having access to sports content is a great way for people to be entertained and keep their spirits up. So, we are also opening up the platform free of charge until May for new customers and customers with a suspended subscription that want to reactivate it.

“It goes without saying that this isn’t sustainable in the long-term, so once our key sports partners are able to resume coverage, we will recommence our paid subscription model again, but this will not happen until May at the earliest.”

Latch said Spark is in talks with a number of its rights partners to bolster the amount of on-demand content it can provide. He added: “For example, we have already been given the opportunity to access content from the Premier League archive that includes historic matches, highlight shows and the legends documentary series featuring greats like Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola.

“If customers want to request a specific match they would like to re-watch they can get in touch with us on our Facebook page and we will endeavour to source the most popular matches requested. The requested matches will be added to the already extensive ‘Premier League Fan Requests’ section on Spark Sport.

“In addition to the extra Premier League content we are in talks with our other sports partners to ensure our customers have a steady pipeline of quality content available to watch. Currently Spark Sport has a raft of content from the NBA, Heineken Champions Cup, Premier League, the WTA, World Rally Championships, FIH hockey, Formula 1, One Championship and more, so people will have plenty to watch.”

Pay-television broadcaster Sky, another major sports broadcaster in New Zealand, has not committed to a similar move. The Stuff.co.nz website reported Sky as saying yesterday (Monday) that it was working with rights-holders “to develop the best possible package to deliver to customers” and hoped to provide more details later this week.