Sports and Copyright—Why Sports Fans are Cheating Themselves When They Stream Pirated Content


Almost everyone in today’s society takes some interest in sports, whether as a fan or as a participant. It’s virtually inevitable—and unavoidable. It may be a sport that we played in our youth, and now follow, or a sport that we still play. It could be a team sport or a primarily individual one, like golf or tennis. If it’s a team sport, and you are Canadian you are expected to follow hockey. By this I mean ice hockey, not the equally rough version played on grass or turf. If you are an American, baseball is probably the sport of choice, although these days that is being challenged by basketball or American football. And of course football (which we call soccer in North America) is the team sport that dominates most of the rest of the world, with the exception of a few places like New Zealand, where you cannot not talk about rugby–or Bhutan, where archery takes pride of place! Sport has enriched our language and provided us with colourful metaphors, everything from “striking out”, to “stepping up to the plate”, to “slam-dunk”, “sticky wicket” and “scoring an own goal”. What would the English language do without sports?

Sport has become a big business, and a way of demonstrating national prowess and pride. It even reflects history. It is not without some irony that India, colonized by the British, has succeeded in beating England handily in cricket on a number of occasions (although they did not do so well in last year’s Test tour). In fact because of the popularity of cricket in India, it is arguably the largest commercial market for the game, driven by the television rights to a billion person audience. It has also been a long time since England has been dominant in either soccer or rugby; the “colonials” and other foreigners learn well. And Canada, which used to think that it owned ice-hockey because it invented it, has had to get used to losing to Russians, Finns, Germans, even Americans! The US will always be dominant in baseball because it owns the “World Series” (where the only non-US team able to compete is the Toronto Blue Jays). Little League is another matter, however. The Little League (up to age 12) championship has been won by teams from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Venezuela and Mexico, as well as a number of American teams, over the years.

The broadcast rights for sports events like the SuperBowl, the World Series, Stanley Cup, English Premier League championship and those most global of events, the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, go for staggering amounts. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) reports that “of the US$3.7 billion in total revenues (excluding ticket sales) generated by the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, two-thirds or US$2.4 billion was derived from the sale of broadcasting rights.” Even the ads broadcast during the SuperBowl game are a major commercial event; they even became a significant Canada-US political issue that had to be tackled in the new NAFTA Agreement.

Sports revenues are not just generated from broadcast rights, of course, as anyone who has tried to purchase a ticket to an NBA game will know. There is also merchandising, branding, product licensing, endorsements, sports technology and so on, but licensing of game broadcasts is a major, if not the major, source of revenues for many leagues and sports events. Key sports series and events are “must-haves” for certain broadcasters and distribution platforms. In Canada, when the CBC lost the TV broadcast rights to “Hockey Night in Canada”, (the Saturday night hockey game watched by no less than half the Canadian population on an ongoing basis, which the CBC had been broadcasting since 1931), to Rogers Media in 2014, it became an almost existential crisis for the national public broadcaster. It was like losing a “national treasure,” one that helped offset the CBC’s chronic public funding shortages through the sale of lucrative advertising.

The revenues generated from the advertising sold around the broadcast of sports not only support jobs in broadcasting and content distribution globally, but the licensing fees paid by the broadcasters enable teams, owners and leagues to pay the superstars who keep the crowds coming, and watching, and wanting more. More than that, in many sports, the revenue that flows back is used in development programs to support junior sports and to nurture the next generation of athletes. In the case of soccer, UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) reports that;

Over one billion people tuned into the 2008 UEFA European Football Championships with, on average, an estimated 150 million television viewers watching each match. Some 1.1 million spectators watched the matches live inside stadiums and a further 4.2 million followed the action on giant screens located in official “fan zones”. The UEFA EURO 2012 tournament, including qualifying matches, is expected to attract a cumulative audience of 4.3 billion, a global live television audience of 1.1 billion with an estimated 55,000 hours of TV coverage across 220 countries making it one of the world’s premier brands.

By protecting its intellectual property (IP) rights, UEFA is able to maintain the sustained growth and development of European football. With these rights, the European football’s governing body can generate revenue by granting and guaranteeing exclusive licenses to its official commercial partners. The derived revenue is distributed with the aim of promoting the healthy and continuous development of professional, amateur and youth football throughout Europe.”

The quote above was drawn from an article written in 2012 so one can only assume that the revenues and viewership are that much bigger today. In the world of rugby, the Six Nations Championships (England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales) derive 80% of their revenues from broadcasting. Those revenues are used, much as in soccer, to foster development of the game. As the legal counsel for Six Nations Rugby Limited stated;

“Any revenue generated over and above the staging costs is re-invested in the sport, both to improve it at the professional level and to provide facilities and coaching opportunities at the community level. Such investment at the grass roots enables amateur players to enjoy the health, recreational and social benefits of the game and facilitates the identification and development of new talent to join the professional elite. The professional game then drives the popularity of the sport and generates additional revenue for further investment. This “virtuous circle” enables the unions to generate consumer benefits, employment opportunities and tax revenues at the professional end of the sport, and public policy benefits at the community level, in terms of better health and greater social inclusion and racial and gender equality.”

The point is that in many sports, apart from paying top talent, and making some club owners and shareholders wealthy, sport revenues not only create employment throughout the full value chain of the industry, but a considerable portion goes to youth and underprivileged areas benefitting communities and promoting healthy living. What could be more worthwhile than that?

Thus, it is disturbing to see the struggle that franchise holders and broadcasters have to engage in to protect their rights against theft by pirate operators. Broadcasters and distribution platforms naturally want to protect the licensed rights that they have paid for, and ensure that viewer eyeballs are locked on to their feed, watching the ads that they have sold. Distribution platforms also want to attract and keep viewers, and the premium offering of selected sports events is a huge driver of subscriptions and platform loyalty. Sports rights-holders want to ensure that broadcasters are able to monetize their licensed broadcast and streaming content so they can continue to be able to pay top dollar for the rights. A hole in the system, through widespread piracy, drains the revenues that keep the afore-mentioned “virtuous circle” going.

Sport is unique among content offerings. While it is usually better not to know how a story turns out, watching a television series or movie is still a worthwhile viewer experience even if the outcome is known. However, with sports, the game is the thing. Once the winner is known, interest drops off rapidly, even though there may be a limited market for the repeat clips of the “perfect goal”. Therefore, the industry faces a particular challenge in protecting its content owing to the limited window during which the content is of maximum value. It doesn’t make much sense to get the pirate stream blocked after the game is over; it has to happen in real time. Technology is both a “friend” and a “foe”, as it enables piracy but also provides the means to combat it.

To meet the challenge, the big players are going after piracy by seeking blocking orders that require ISPs to block pirated feeds in real time. At the same time, the leagues are trying to stop sale of illicit boxes (ISDs or Illicit Streaming Devices) that facilitate streaming of pirated content. In the UK, the Premier League has obtained a renewal of its original 2017 injunction, applicable to the current season, requiring British ISPs to block pirated streams. It has been reported that British ISPs either support the injunctions (if they have their own content interests) or at least have not opposed them. Over 5,000 server IP addresses that were streaming content illegally were blocked under the initial injunction. In the US, the professional sports leagues have been less successful in combating piracy. The NBA estimates that the number of 18 to 34 year olds watching pro basketball on pay-TV has dropped by 50% in the past eight years despite strong growth in popularity of the sport. There is a growing gap between interest in the game and TV ratings, which inevitably has a financial consequence.

Pirated soccer content has been a big issue in Asia and the Middle East as well. The English Premier League has in fact just opened its first international anti-piracy office in Singapore. Singapore has a sports piracy problem, despite being an affluent market, with studies showing that 15 percent of consumers in Singapore use TV boxes that can stream pirated content. Last November the Singapore High Court ordered local ISPs to block access to TV box applications that enable consumers to stream pirated programming. The plaintiffs, some of them sports channels, were members of AVIA, the new identity of the broadcasting and video industry in the Asian region, one of whose main objectives is to reduce video piracy across all genres.

Sports piracy is also happening on a large scale in the Middle East, but here there is a distinct political overlay to the problem. The rights holder for the region, BeIN Sports is based in the Gulf sheikdom of Qatar, (also home to the broadcaster al-Jazeera). Qatar is currently engaged an ongoing political dispute with its much larger Arab neighbour, Saudi Arabia. The dispute is historical, rooted in traditional tribal rivalries but also involves current power politics in the region. A pirate broadcaster, BeoutQ, is broadcasting BeIN Sports licensed programming to audiences throughout Saudi Arabia, whereas BeIN Sports is blocked for political reasons. Content on BeoutQ is mostly but not exclusively pirated from BeIN Sports and fills the content vacuum created by the Saudi blockage of the Qatar-based service. The government of the Kingdom professes ignorance, but it is hard to believe that BeoutQ could pirate the Qatar-uplinked signal and downlink throughout Saudi without some kind of government sanction, official or unofficial. It is claimed that the content is distributed on Arabsat, based in Riyadh. Wimbledon, Formula 1, UEFA, FIFA, the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga and the Asian Football Confederation have all complained, with legal action threatened. BeIN Sport is now suing the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for cancelling its broadcast rights in Saudi, with the AFC in effect doing an end run on its licensee. There are many intractable problems in the Middle East driven by various political rivalries, and it seems that this may be a manifestation of one of them–with the sports rights-holders caught in the middle.

While the pirating of BeIN Sports content may require a larger political solution, in most jurisdictions where piracy is taking place there are no international political impediments that prevent dealing with the issue, just domestic legal processes. In jurisdictions like the UK, concrete action is being taken to interrupt the flow of pirated sports content while the game is still on. That is the best tactic to wean dedicated sports fans off the habit of saving a few dollars by watching an unreliable pirate stream. Die-hard fans will pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for tickets to key games. Why not pay a modest fee to access legitimate sports content on broadcast or streaming platforms and know that you are contributing in a small way to supporting the sports eco-system that invests in the development of new sporting talent, with all the positive side benefits this brings for society? True sports fans are team players who contribute to their favourite sport rather than cheating the system and depriving the game of the sustenance it needs to survive. At the end of the day, sports fans who cheat by watching pirated content are only cheating themselves.

© Hugh Stephens, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

6 thoughts on “Sports and Copyright—Why Sports Fans are Cheating Themselves When They Stream Pirated Content”

  1. Serious side issue, and one that I think bears a lot more consideration: False assumptions about territorial interest. For example, at present I live 35km south of the US-Canadian border (but north of Victoria!), so my “legal ability” to get all of that ice hockey action is confined to US broadcasters. And they charge a huge rent: There is little over-the-air broadcasting of games here, and it’s almost always involving either a defending Stanley Cup champion or an “original six” team. It’s even worse with football, whether or not from an expatriate perspective.

    Then, too, there’s a built-in assumption even for cable/other direct-access systems that if one moves, one’s team allegiance (and, therefore, desired sport programming) will change with the move. Yeah, moving to NYC would have a reasonable probability of turning me into a Yankees fan (if I even watched baseball)… People are much more mobile now than when territorial memes were adopted.


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