Get ready for the Rugby World Cup – here's everything you need to know about Spark's streaming sports service.
Spark made a big splash when it launched its streaming sports service. First, it nabbed the rights to the 2019 Rugby World Cup (RWC), then followed that up with the English Premier League (EPL).
At time of writing the service was not in its final release version. As such, I was only able to trial some of the features.
First of all, you do not need a Spark phone or internet plan. You can sign up through the app or sparksport.co.nz. You pay with a credit card and a subscription will cost $20 per month. You can stop your subscription at any time. This stops you accessing any paid content, but you’ll still be able to view its free content.
To watch, you’ll need a fairly high-speed internet connection, VDSL or better. A fast fibre plan is your best option. Adaptive streaming, used by online video services, means content quality scales based on the strength of your connection. You can use free services such as Speedtest.net or Fast.com to test your connection speeds.
Right now, the main sports offered are Formula 1, Heineken Cup Rugby, hockey, the mixed martial arts ONE Championship and the World Rally Championship. There’s also NBA TV, which is mostly replays and analysis shows, with six games per week during the season.
While Spark Sport has a lot of live events, nearly all of them are played in the middle of the night here, such as F1 Grands Prix, and many viewers are choosing to watch on-demand. However, when the EPL kicks off in August, the number of live games being watched will increase and the system will receive its real test before the RWC in September.
During my trial, I was able to try Spark Sport through the mobile apps (iOS and Android) and browser. I also used the Apple TV and smart TV app on a Samsung TV. and I streamed footage to my Apple TV using AirPlay. The streaming quality was good on both my tablet and TV. However, I had some drops in quality when I added closed captions.
The interface in all the apps is clunky and not easy to use, and it was hard to find specific content. It’s not intuitive and feels like a system from a few years ago.
Spark Sport keeps a full list of available devices on this page. The list now includes most smart TVs.
The Rugby World Cup will be charged as a one-off $90 fee (not included as part of the subscription). You can also buy single games for $25.
You don't need an active subscription to buy a World Cup Pass, but you will need an account.
The tournament pass includes full match replays for 30 days following each game, as well as highlights, previews and reviews. It also includes “a range of historic Rugby World Cup match content” that’s available as soon as you buy the pass.
This historic content is full matches from previous World Cups with original commentary. They also include interviews with players and coaches involved in the game.
TVNZ will be broadcasting 12 games – seven live and five delayed. This includes the semi-finals, final and all the games New Zealand plays in. Spark has also indicated TVNZ is the back-up in case anything happens to the site. Of course, if the site falls over after you’ve paid, you’ll have protection under the CGA.
Make sure your internet connection is the best it can be. Do an internet speed test on the device you’ll watch on and at peak time (around 7pm). It needs to be at least 6Mbps on mobile or 15Mbps for TV.
Figure out what you’re going to watch the RWC on: smart TV, computer, mobile device, Apple TV, or a combination (for example, using Chromecast or Apple Airplay).
If everything looks good, then get a Spark Sport account and a Rugby World Cup pack.
The incumbent for streaming sport in New Zealand was Sky TV’s Fan Pass, but the service will be changed to Sky Sport Now. It will offer all 12 of Sky's Sport channels live as well as some on-demand content.
Right now, the yearly package costs almost twice that of Spark Sport ($40 per month). It’s also available on a casual monthly basis for $50, or $20 for a weekly pass.
Unlike Spark Sport, Sky Sport Now is almost completely live TV, offering access to Sky Sport 1-9, Sky Sport News, and both ESPN and ESPN2. There is some on-demand content, such as game highlights and certain PPV (pay-per-view) events, such as UFC, though the latter is an extra cost.
Because this service is essentially Sky Sport online, it’s the only way to stream netball, league, cricket and any non-World Cup rugby. While it doesn’t have an app for most TVs, you can use Chromecast, AirPlay or the Apple TV app to watch on a big screen.
Rugby isn’t the only sport streaming online. Many professional sports leagues have their own streaming service. The more popular the league, the easier it is to find an excellent streaming service at a good price.
For example, big-money American sports (NFL, MLB and NBA) all have excellent streaming services. The software behind these services are often used by other sports, so user interfaces are very similar.
We’ve compiled a short and non-exhaustive list of sports services available in New Zealand. We don't list prices for these services as they vary depending on how far through the season it is. There are also different ways of billing. For example MLB TV costs US$100 (NZ$140) a year while WWE costs NZ$15 a month.
NFL GamePass (American football)
Offers live and on-demand HD streams of every game. Extra content including highlight packages, specially edited games, some historic content, and NFL network. App available on most mobile devices, browsers, and some media boxes, such as Apple TV.
MLB TV (baseball)
Offers full live and on-demand HD streams and radio broadcasts of every game. When watching on-demand games you can skip between innings and scoring plays. You can choose between home and away broadcast commentary. Extra content including highlight packages and specially edited games. App available on most mobile devices, browsers, and some media boxes, such as Apple TV. Note, the service is called MLB TV, the app is called MLB At Bat.
NBA League Pass (basketball)
Offers live and on-demand HD streams of every game. Extra content including highlight packages, specially edited games, some historic content, documentaries, and NBA TV. App available on most mobile devices, browsers, and some media boxes, such as Apple TV.
PGA Tour Live (golf)
Offers live and on-demand HD streams of every tour event. Extra content includes behind the scenes, highlights, and early rounds. App available on most mobile devices, browsers, and Apple TV.
Tennis TV (tennis)
Offers live and on-demand HD streams of most ATP tour events. Extra content including highlight packages and some historic content. Does not include Grand Slams, WTA, Davis or Fed Cup matches. Auckland Open not available to watch in New Zealand. App available on most mobile devices.
UFC TV (mixed martial arts)
Offers two different packages: one screens live and on-demand single pay-per-view (PPV) events, the other offers a subscription service for live and on-demand non-PPV events. App available on most mobile devices, browsers, and some media boxes, such as Apple TV.
WWE Network (pro wrestling)
Offers live and on-demand HD streams of every PPV event and weekly shows. Extra content includes exclusive shows broadcast on the network as well as historical shows. Some weekly shows are only available after a delay. App available on most mobile devices, browsers, and some media boxes, such as Apple TV.
Subscriptions can be broken down into 3 types of subscriptions: weekly/monthly; partial season; full season. Partial season subscriptions are usually deals during play-offs or finals, where you may be able to buy one game or a series.
There are other services, such as NRL Live Pass for rugby league, which are only available in certain countries. It may be possible to access these via a VPN and a non-NZ payment method.
Freeview channel Duke, also offers sports (both live and as broadcast replays). You can stream it live via the TVNZ On-Demand app or website, but you are constrained by the broadcast schedule.
Social media sites are also getting into the sports broadcast business. Twitter broadcasts selected NFL, MLB games and eSports tournaments (the latter regularly gets more than 100 million viewers) for free. YouTube has broadcast the Olympics to countries that didn’t have a national broadcaster covering the event.
Note, this is not the same as individuals broadcasting sports events on Facebook, which is a breach of copyright.
This brings us to illegal online streams. Some websites offer free streaming sports events, but none of them are legal. These streams are often full of dodgy ads and can be vectors for malware on your computer. The exceptions to this rule, such as Twitter mentioned above, are few and far between.
Even if using a VPN to pretend you’re from another country, you’ll still have to pay for content. Anyone who tells you watching sport online for free is legal is lying and probably trying to sell you something.