Sony-backed Whisper makes its move in NZ with an eye on the All Blacks

James Gemmell is about to turn his life upside down.

In the middle of the year, the 40-year-old Aucklander will return home after more than a decade in the UK, with wife Olivia and young sons Teddy (2) and Toby (4 months) on board for the adventure.

And when he settles back into life in Aotearoa, the fast-changing sport, media and entertainment landscape could also be in for a serious shake-up.

Gemmell will head up the Auckland office of Whisper, the production company that Spark Sport recruited to produce its coverage of the Black Caps in the deal with NZ Cricket. But Whisper sees that as only the first step.

Playing devil's advocate, Stuff asks Gemmell if Whisper could, in theory, shoot and produce All Blacks tests and Super Rugby for New Zealand Rugby at a later date, if the union decides to set up its own platform to sell its content directly to fans.

“Yes. In short, we could,” Gemmell says. “And in time, once we're established a bit more in the market we can put in deeper roots with regards to the talent pool, all the freelancers, all the technical specialists that it takes.

“Sky do a brilliant job, and have done for a long, long time, of covering the game but really this is just technical expertise.

“So, the decision there would be between NZ Rugby and Silver Lake, how they want to distribute their content. It's theirs to do with it what they want.

"If they wanted to outsource their coverage, an outfit like Whisper would be able to do something like that. We're doing it now. We're doing it with Spark.”

Now, let's take a step back: such a deal isn't part of Whisper's dedicated strategic plan, and no one knows NZ Rugby's plans if the $465 million deal with private equity group Silver Lake goes ahead. However, Whisper is clearly capable, and ambitious.

Founded in the UK by former F1 driver David Coulthard, among others, in 2010, it has risen fast - 18 months ago Sony backed the company with its financial muscle and global scale.

And last week, All Blacks great Sean Fitzpatrick joined the company's advisory board for its push into New Zealand and Australia.

Whisper has previously produced content for F1 and the NFL, which was part of their appeal to Spark Sport boss Jeff Latch, who hired them for a six-year deal to show the Black Caps in New Zealand.

Whisper's growth also reflects the changing model in broadcasting, Gemmell says.

Previously, a broadcaster would record the live content and produce the shows to go with it: all in-house.

Now, with broadcasters increasingly investing in new delivery platforms they are using independent production companies such as Whisper to come up with the content and production sparkle.

In the New Zealand cricket context, Whisper hired the cameramen – this country has a highly skilled workforce of freelance broadcast operators - and sent over producers/directors from the UK to oversee it, not Spark Sport. That is a tectonic shift in the industry.

But live sport is just one part of a bigger picture, Gemmell believes.

“The headlines in New Zealand always refer to All Blacks broadcast rights with Sky, and that's about where it stops," he says.

“Obviously, the live rights are the jewel in the crown, but there are so many layers around that, particularly when you are talking about a global brand like the All Blacks. And that is yet to be explored.

“A lot of it revolves around content, and a lot of it revolves around data and who those fans are.

“The beauty of being independent is that we can partner with broadcasters in the traditional way we have done with Spark, but we can also help support organisations like the All Blacks who may be looking to open up commercial avenues with the distribution of content both within New Zealand and international markets, and doing slightly different things with their people, their products and their brand.

“We need to find a way of engaging with tomorrow's fans.”

Telling stories is Gemmell's bread and butter.

He fronted Spark Sport's coverage of the 2019 Rugby World Cup but really built his reputation in the UK, where he is a very familiar face to any expat Kiwi, Australian or South African who has watched Sanzaar rugby on Sky UK for the past decade.

That significant period of time in London has shaped his view of the fast-changing sport, entertainment and media industries but while you can take the boy out of New Zealand, you can never take New Zealand out of the boy.

He loves watching Kiwis performing on the world stage and sees a role for him in telling their stories to countries that admire them but don't really know them. And it's not just the All Blacks and Black Ferns that he views as hugely marketable.

"The New Zealand cricket team right now are magnificent ambassadors for New Zealand sport," Gemmell says.

“They are great guys playing amazing cricket and earning the kudos on the world stage.

“The New Zealand cricket team are a huge pull right now in the UK, and the ability to tell stories for the people inside New Zealand and also beyond our borders is the world we're stepping into now.”