On October 10 last year, England's World Cup qualifier against Ukraine was broadcast exclusively online via pay-per-view for the first time ever. The initiative was handled by digital rights agency Perform and Kentaro, which was left holding rights to the game following the collapse of previous owner Setanta.
After the traditional broadcasters showed limited interest in the rights because England had already qualified for the tournament in South Africa, Perform agreed to screen coverage of the game on a dedicated website, along with a range of third-party sites, with one-off subscription being available for up to £11.99. Users could also watch the game for free if they set up and funded an account at Bet365.
Speaking to Digital Spy, Croker said that the game represented a unique opportunity of a high-profile match being available outside the traditional networks.
"There wasn't any doubt that if it had been a critical game then it wouldn't have come about, as the broadcasters would have snapped it up and we would have got negative PR for not making it available," said Croker.
"Instead, it was the first game where we knew we were going to the World Cup and who [England manager Fabio] Capello picked was still interesting. But it also provoked an interesting debate on the future of television and whether there will be more internet broadcasts. From that point of view it worked really well."
According to Perform, around half a million people watched the game online, with nine in ten viewers saying that they found the picture quality "satisfactory or better" in a post-match survey. A further 87% of viewers felt that the game offered value for money and 89% said that they would watch sport online again.
Croker said that the "biggest limiting factor" facing the game's live streaming was actually the available capacity in the UK's broadband infrastructure.
"There just wasn't enough bandwidth capacity to stream live to the whole country, but we were able to manage the numbers and the affiliate marketing programme helped," he said.
"We worked very closely with BT and others, but it was on a Saturday so there wasn't as much traffic elsewhere and the ISPs kept the lanes open for us. Whenever we're streaming live, we do it on pay-per-view basis, so it's usually very manageable."
Streaming an England game exclusively online provoked an interesting debate about the future of sports rights. Perform streams 12,000 live events online every year, including FA Cup ties and the Australian Open, and Croker believes that will only increase going forward.
"The next generation will want to be able to watch sport online. If you look at virtually all the sports websites now, it's all video-driven with people paying a subscription. It's not about lots of data and stills, that's very old-school," said Croker.
"The NFL, for example, is a bit like a Red Button service where viewers get to choose camera angles and so on. America is the vanguard of this, but they are a very sophisticated broadband community."
As the line increasingly blurs between the internet and the television, online broadcasting brings a new dimension to sports rights deals. Croker said that most rights holders are now "increasingly sophisticated" about how they sell media rights.
"In the UK, if companies buy rights to a live event, they can disseminate that in any way they want. If you want to watch live Sky now, you can watch it on TV, on your iPhone, or on your computer. Without question, that's going to be the future," he said.
"Things are now being carved up by timeslot rather than distribution method and it's no longer about selling the internet, broadcast and mobile rights individually. The Holy Grail used to be getting live sport on the computer, which we achieved. Next, was how to get video on mobile devices, which we've done with the iPhone. The last bastion is how to get a completely integrated internet and TV experience."
Sports rights are a contentious issue at the moment in the wake of Ofcom's enforced wholesale price cut to Sky's premium sport channels. For the England-Ukraine game, the BBC failed with a late £1m bid for the rights and instead agreed a highlights deal. According to Croker, the game showed that broadcasters will ultimately "do what they want" when it comes to sports rights.
"In the end it was all about money. The broadcasters held out, with the BBC coming in and doing a highlights deal at the last minute. They were not just going to throw money at it," he said.
Situations like the England-Ukraine game are strictly one-offs, but Croker believes that streaming live sport can provide a low cost way to leverage value from rights.
"Take a heavyweight fight, if you sell live rights in 20 markets, why not also stream the game in the remaining markets to see if anyone will take it?" he said.
"You're completely bypassing the whole infrastructure cost of creating a TV network and getting a broadcast licence; its instant television. You can effectively create an online TV channel in 72 hours."
The Indian Premier League (IPL) recently agreed a deal with YouTube to steam live and on-demand coverage from the cricket tournament without charge. The initiative was designed to reach a bigger audience for the event and broaden the UK fanbase.
"It's a very interesting model what the IPL is doing with YouTube, because they are letting somebody else manage the distribution," said Croker.
"They are not charging and it will be interesting to see if the ad-supported model works. I am sceptical about that. Historically, there have been problems with piracy but obviously making it available in the clear negates that issue. But we'll have to see how it goes."
Croker said that Perform has done "a lot of work" in preparing for online video distribution on Apple's "fascinating" new iPad. The company is also looking for ways to foster sustainable growth in the business of online broadcasting.
"The one-off sporting events are interesting and help raise the profile of our organisation, but obviously we are interested in the longer term growth of the business," he said.
"If there are one-off opportunities, then of course we will be interested but the core business is about growing the universe of watching sport online. You are not going to get rich doing one-off events, it's about building it long-term."
Croker will discuss online streaming of sporting events at the Sport & New Media Conference, which is being held by SportBusiness on April 21 in Manchester. More details are available at www.sportandnewmedia.com.