On Saturday morning, fans will begin filing through Old Trafford’s turnstiles en masse for the first time since the pandemic. As returning supporters play out their hallowed match day rituals, more familiar habits will be seen on screens around the world as people watch the standout fixture of the Premier League’s opening weekend: Manchester United vs Leeds.
Ahead of the 12.30pm kick-off, modified set-top boxes will whirr into life. Laptops will be opened, followed by frantic searching, scrolling and clicking. Links promising glorious HD coverage lead to dead-ends. Pop-up ads obscure the action. Footage lags, blurs and then abruptly cuts out. The process is repeated again and again, with huge stretches of the match missed.
It’s ostensibly an awful way to consume live television yet, for many, this is how they watch football. According to figures from anti-piracy firm MUSO, there were 337 million visits to sport piracy websites from the UK alone between July 2020 and June 2021. That’s despite those 12 months being a unique broadcasting period in that, for the first time, every Premier League game was available to watch legally. “It’s a huge number,” reflects MUSO’s CEO and co-founder Andy Chatterley. “In the US, it’s the NFL. In India, it’s cricket. In the UK, it’s the Premier League which drives illegal sports streaming.”
If sport is the live stream bounty for pirates, then the Premier League is the jewel in the crown. It’s a global enterprise, with England’s top flight the most watched sports league in the world. It’s why its broadcast deals total more than £9 billion – with nearly half coming from overseas. But piracy is threatening those individual nine-figure contracts which make up the mammoth pot. “If piracy is rife, the exclusivity that broadcasters have signed isn’t worth the paper it’s written on – and that impacts the price they’re prepared to pay,” says sport finance expert and Sheffield Hallam University senior lecturer Dan Plumley.
However, piracy is incredibly difficult to prevent. One industry insider, who asked not be named, likens it to the flow of water. “You can’t stop it, it will always find a way,” they explain. “Everyone says they have the best system and deny there’s a big problem, but you can find any game with Sky Sports coverage any time you want. Just go on Twitter and you can find thousands of links.”
Unable to halt the tide of illegal streaming, rights holders and anti-piracy companies can only try and control its flow. The strategy is to build barriers and frustrate pirates riding the digital waves. Forensic watermarking identifies streams originating from hacked set-top boxes and web crawlers trawl the internet’s expanse to detect illegal websites. Streams are closed, URLs are blocked – only for them to re-emerge at the surface under fresh domain names.
With social restrictions ending, and stadiums full, this season sees the 3pm blackout return – meaning no live domestic football can be broadcast between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on Saturdays in the UK. It’s to protect live attendances throughout the English football pyramid. However, matches are still shown overseas through international broadcast deals. And where there’s a demand for prohibited goods, black markets thrive. Chatterley acknowledges that the live televised genie could now be out of the bottle. “Will the embargo coming back cause a pirating spike? Yes, massively.”
But it isn’t just an issue of access which means people pirate. After all, according to MUSO’s data, illegal live sport streaming returned to pre-pandemic figures despite blanket Premier League coverage. However, there is a question of cost. In the UK, competition laws have meant live televised matches are split between three broadcasters: Sky, BT and Amazon. Currently, it costs £66.99 a month to subscribe to all three – more than £800 a year.
Why is it so expensive for football fans to see their team play? Blame their loyal support. “It’s supply and demand,” says Plumley. “If you’re a broadcaster paying big money, you have to reclaim that through subscriptions. It ultimately comes down to whatever someone is prepared to pay.”
It can feel that illegally streaming a football match is a victimless crime, that money is simply being taken away from clubs owned by Gulf state billionaires, who can already afford to pay Lionel Messi a salary of £1 million a week. However, pirates make big money from the intellectual property they steal. According to data from anti-piracy analytics firm White Bullet, which has collaborated with the Premier League on research, the top ten illegal sport streaming websites in the UK each make an average of £1.4 million a year.
It’s achieved through the murky world of digital advertising. “Piracy doesn’t exist without money,” explains Peter Szyszko, White Bullet’s founder and chief executive. “It’s mostly ad funded – they put content out there for free and make money through selling ad space.” Often, illegal streams pop up on obscure domains. Szyszko says that a common technique will see a legal, football related blog generate some legitimate clicks. Then, ahead of kick-off, it will host an illegal live stream and its URL will be pasted across social media. Traffic and programmatic ad deals, subsequently, skyrocket. “The bump in payments through impressions and actions will massively scale,” Szyszko says.
In the digital ecosystem, that pirate site – a sports blog – will be seen as a safe spot with millions of pageviews, meaning advertisers get more eyeballs on their placements for lower costs. And, often, they’re from reputable, household brands or even tech giants, including the likes of Amazon and Google. “Those brands won’t know about it,” says Szyszko. “Ad agencies just want volume. Based on traffic, pirate sites are super popular. And, traditionally, piracy hasn’t been seen as one of the bad ills of the world in terms of ads versus, say, adult sites or hate blogs.”
The Premier League has a big problem. It can’t stop piracy, but it has to be proactive in disrupting it in order to protect rights holders and safeguard broadcast deals. Alongside various High Court blocking orders, it’s also helped to prosecute operators of illegal, subscription based IPTV services. But piracy is occurring on an industrial scale. When Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, it also banned the transmission of local sports broadcaster beIN in the Kingdom. In the aftermath, the tauntingly-named beoutQ emerged, illegally simulcasting beIN’s coverage.
It’s now the biggest pirate pay TV operator in the world. Although the Premier League has tried to shut the operation down, Saudi Arabian law firms have refused to take on the case and the state denies involvement. In 2019, beIN Media Group’s chief executive said that rights values were “going to drop off a cliff” due to piracy. However, it renewed its broadcast deal last year for roughly the same value, at $500 million (about £368 million), following the Premier League’s efforts to combat illegal streaming.
Of the 380 Premier League games this season, nearly half won’t be televised on these shores. Piracy could, therefore, reach new peaks. Szyszko believes the only way to truly curb illegal streaming is by turning off the revenue taps which enable an estimated $1.3 billion (£970 million) of advertising money to flow to piracy websites every year. “Pirates will find ways around watermarking or the latest technology. The only way to stop them is by stopping the ad dollars, and if the ad industry filters out piracy the same way it filters out other illegal content. Piracy is there to make money for bad people.” Wired