Swimming in the illegal stream

You can never watch enough sport. Well, at least that’s one of my mantras which probably isn’t shared by the three females who I live with. Since lockdown started a year ago, the amount of sport, especially football, available to watch on TV has increased significantly. With football fans being locked out of stadiums for most of that period, the increase in the number of matches that are streamed have been important for supporters, clubs, advertisers and broadcasters. In some aspects the pandemic has led to a win/win situation for those involved in sports broadcasting. But has the amount of readily available streams of live sport had an impact on digital piracy?

Virtually all of the English Premier League games have been shown via subscription-based channels – Sky Sports, BT Sports and Amazon Prime are the rights holders , and an announcement this week stated that every remaining game, or at least until fans can return to stadiums, will be shown live, whilst the BBC will show live Women’s Super League football on a weekly basis. Further down the leagues and fans have been able access a variety of OTT services and club broadcasts.

There’s no doubt it has been successful. If I look at my own club, Lewes, who play in the 7th tier of Men’s football and the 2nd tier of the Women’s game, we have been able to stream our live games to viewers in over 30 countries and bring in valuable revenue on a donation basis. Other clubs, such as tier 5 Bromley have brought in professional broadcast services that costs thousands of pounds per game to produce a full match day show including instant replays and post-match interviews.

Everyone is happy, right? Unfortunately, no. The issue of digital piracy has evolved over the years and whilst our enforced lockdown may have impacted many things in our every day life, it hasn’t appeared to have dampened the demand for illegal streams.

With the number of people now connected to the digital world across the globe exceeding 4.5 billion people, based on active usage in July 2020, or approximately 59% of the world’s population. The digital evolution continues at a pace, driven by the falling cost of mobile internet access and increase in demand for Social Media websites and apps that connect people around the world.

This increased demand for content from global users has been evident in the sports industry where legitimate access to games, matches and events had driven commercial broadcast models. A clear example of this can be seen from the values of the TV rights for the English Premier League which were first negotiated back in 1992 at £191 million for a four season term to the current deal which runs until the end of the 2022 and is worth a staggering £5 billion.

Consequently, the UK broadcast rights holders, such as Amazon, Sky Sports and BT Sports, have put in place commercial models so that they will see a return on their investment. And herein lies the Catch 22 situation. The broadcasters need to innovate to add value to acquire and retain subscribers through new technology or the quality of the experts in the studio and consequently that increases their costs to deliver which means they have to increase the subscription costs. The higher the cost to the consumer, the more likely they will be to search for cheaper options, which leads them to illegal streaming services.

To stop these illegal broadcast channels, the rights holders need to first detect the streams and that is something that has to happen in the moment. The English Premier League removed or blocked over 210,000 live streams in the 2018/19 season, putting pressure on ISPs to block access to servers that are distributing the illegal streams. Whilst the EPL can demonstrate some success which included prosecutions against a number of individuals who were responsible for a large-scale network supplying illicit streaming devices in the UK, it is just the tip of the iceberg. The individuals behind this illegal streaming network were convicted for the common law offence of conspiracy to defraud and received jail sentences totalling 17 years, hopefully a deterrent to others.

Unfortunately, it is still far too easy for non-subscribers to access the live games being transmitted. Many will be via the “grey” market – overseas TV channels that are legitimately showing the games but are intercepted by UK satellite receiving equipment and are then broadcast in pubs and clubs, or via in Covid-19 times, online channels, which is still in breach of the law in the United Kingdom.

We tend to think that illegal streaming is a problem associated with films or TV shows but studies carried out by organisations such as the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) suggest that approximately 25% of all Internet bandwidth is used for streaming illegal content, with this digital piracy costing the global economy more than $50 billion per annum.

To take the Premier League example again, the collective rights holders including Sky, BT Sports and Amazon made their decision to bid for the rights based on a return on investment model that included increasing the number of subscribers and thus their revenue per viewer. If they do not see this increase in revenue due to the amount of illegal streaming and downloads, they will potentially incur losses from the coverage they make and thus could reconsider their position when the next bidding window opens. Without the investment in the rights, the Premier League and thus the clubs will see a significant reduction in income. No TV deal means no global superstars gracing our pitches. Without the superstars, commercial partnerships will decline as global brands find alternative markets and icons for their millions. Just like the hyper-inflation of the players’ wages has driven up the value of the product (in this case the TV rights deal), consumers who are priced out devalue the product by accessing illegal content.

It isn’t just the economic harm that illegal streaming causes. In a report issued by the Office of National Statistics in 2019 they found that over 3 million Internet users who had streamed content illegally had seen their devices infected, over 1 million had been subsequently hacked and almost a million had been a victim of theft. Those numbers alone should be a deterrent to anyone buying a illegal streaming device or visiting websites that have links to unauthorised content. Malware, spyware and other digital nasties do not normally announce themselves to those who have inadvertently downloaded them onto their machines (ransomware excepted) – the cost of removing them ad repairing the damage they can wreak far outweighs the subscription fee to access events through legitimate channels.

Removing links to websites that are hosting illegally streams requires the co-ordination of the rights holder, the social media platform that has allowed users to share the links, and the website where the content is being streamed from. Quite a task for something happening live and in real time. Sporting events aren’t like the latest blockbuster movies – their interest reduces as soon as the event is over. Being able to monitor social media for infringing content is possible – having the enforcement team is the harder part. The role that the broadcast rights holders is also key. They have to do everything they can to protect their investment.

In a world where the consumption of media in the moment in a mobile environment is the norm rather than the exception, digital piracy detection and ultimately deletion is a major challenge for the broadcast holders. Whilst many other industries have seen their revenue models decimated by digital piracy, the sports industry have to content with the nature of consumption of their product (“in the moment”) in finding solutions, a challenge that technology alone can solve. The question is when and at what cost.