There are grave fears for the future of New Zealand's professional netball competition, with the sport's broadcast revenue set to plummet once its current deal with Sky TV lapses.
Insiders are warning Netball NZ is "close to having a crisis on its hands" after Sky's bid for rights for the ANZ Premiership and Silver Ferns tests was significantly lower than previous deals.
One official with knowledge of the negotiations told RNZ the offer from Sky was "less than half" its current broadcast rights agreement, which will expire at the end of the 2024 season.
The lowball offer is said to have generated panic within Netball NZ's offices, with the broadcast deal, thought to be around $10 million, covering the salary caps of the six ANZ Premiership franchises.
"The broadcast revenue essentially funds the entire model," the official said. "If Netball NZ can't find a way to cover that shortfall, then the future of the league, and the future of the sport, is looking very, very shaky."
Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie declined to be interviewed for this story, while in a written statement Sky's chief corporate affairs officer Chris Major said "negotiations on content partnerships are confidential and commercially sensitive, and we don't comment publicly on them".
There are concerns too about how a reduced broadcast deal would impact player contracts.
Broadcast revenue accounts for the overwhelming majority of player generated revenue, meaning the earnings of the country's top players could take a hit.
Steph Bond, the executive manager of the New Zealand Netball Players' Association, said she was unable to comment while negotiations were ongoing.
With the Sky offer falling well short of expectations, it is understood Netball NZ has gone to market to gauge interest from other broadcast partners.
TVNZ, the former home of netball up until 2008 when Sky partnered with Netball NZ for the launch of the now-defunct trans-Tasman league, is considered the most viable option.
While TVNZ is unlikely to be able to match the investment of Sky, a return to free-to-air television would be seen as a positive move for the sport. TVNZ would provide vastly bigger audience numbers and reach through its linear and digital platforms, potentially opening up more commercial opportunities for Netball NZ.
But sports marketing experts believe for netball to grow its commercial revenue, its shop window needs an overhaul.
There is frustration within the sport that netball bosses have done little to invigorate the domestic competition since the split in the trans-Tasman league.
Compared with Australia's flashy made-for-TV Suncorp Super Netball competition, the lack of innovation in New Zealand's league is stark. It has led to dwindling crowds, dwindling coverage and dwindling visibility.
Former Southern Sting board member Lee Piper, who was on the frontlines of netball's lurch towards professionalism in the late 90s and early noughties, said it is disappointing to see the domestic competition languishing.
"We're in an era where content is king. Broadcasters and streaming operators are all looking for content, and that really leads into - how do we make this the best entertainment product it can be?" said Piper, who also served on the Netball NZ board from 2007 - 2015.
"I think Netball NZ have just got overtaken in that respect. Not having any trans-Tasman component has really cost us.
"When you look at the in-stadium experience and the broadcast presentation of the ANZ Premiership, it doesn't look a hell of a lot different to what it did in the old National Bank Cup days."
Another high profile netball identity believes some of the responsibility for the waning interest in the ANZ Premiership rests with Sky.
"Part of it, I think, is a lack of imagination on Netball NZ's part, but Sky has to put its hand up as well. They need to invest in their own products. They've taken a paint by numbers approach for too long now. I mean, where's the innovation?"
The official points out that when Spark emerged as a player in the sports broadcast market in 2019, Sky moved to lock down the netball rights until the end of 2024, despite at that time having two years to run on the existing deal.
They question whether Netball NZ was too easily swayed by the "loyalty factor", costing it the opportunity to leverage the increased competition for rights at a time its stocks were high following the Silver Ferns' victory at the 2019 World Cup.
"If that's what has occurred, it's come back to bite them, big time."