Dedicated fans of top-tier soccer (or football, as it’s more widely known in Europe) who don’t attend matches generally have to pay for the privilege to watch on TV.
In many countries, the only options are expensive ones, which can be reason enough for some to bypass the system altogether and turn to piracy. But even those who can pay the prices aren’t always offered what they need.
In the UK, for example, the 3pm Saturday ‘blackout’ means that some of the most important Premier League games ever played simply aren’t available to the public on TV as they happen. As a result, Saturday afternoons now feature a secondary game of finding a pirate stream online in order to watch something that isn’t legally available on home turf, at any price.
The Premier League tries to combat this activity in collaboration with local ISPs via ‘dynamic blocking‘ but while this has had some effect in the past, anecdotal evidence on dedicated piracy forums suggests that pirates have begun to adapt, so this is having only a limited effect.
While several big leagues in Europe would also like to have these kinds of blocking tools at their disposal, it’s blatantly obvious that they can’t compete with piracy if they aren’t offering customers what they want legally. It’s a sentiment shared by Arne Rees, executive vice president of strategy for Germany’s powerful Bundesliga.
“One of the best defenses against [piracy] is certainly having legal product everywhere,” Rees said, as cited by SportsVideo.org.
“If a fan simply can’t get you, their mind-set is, I want to watch it, and, if only a pirated stream is available, they will justify that.
“At the very least. we have to create an environment where legal product competes with the illegal product. The legal product will always be the better product,” Rees added.
This isn’t to say that legal football content isn’t available to fans already.
Bundesliga matches are broadcast to more than 200 countries around the world, as are matches from the Premier League. However, licensing deals mean that fans are almost always restricted in some way, either through prevention of watching key matches live, or even having access to them at all.
For example, TV 2 – Norway’s largest commercial television broadcaster – has had the rights to show Premier League matches since 2010 and last year struck a new deal which extends to 2022.
The company doesn’t want to reveal how much it paid this time around but for the preceding three years paid around NOK 1.9 billion (around $220m). Nevertheless, it still has a piracy problem and it’s mostly about availability.
In 2019, TV 2 has the rights to show 205 matches, which is around half of those actually played. This means that when crunch matches appear in the other half, hooked fans must either miss out on the action, or turn to piracy.
A report by Aftenposten last month detailed how fans were shut out of the key match between Everton and Manchester City so turned to pirate streams instead. Sarah Willand, Communications Director at TV 2, said the company understands the dilemma faced by fans.
“We would be happy to broadcast all the matches so that people see everything from the Premier League,” Willand said.
“I therefore understand people’s frustration, it’s annoying not to be able to watch their favorite team on TV when you have a subscription.”
Of course, companies like TV 2 are countering by warning consumers that unlicensed services offering matches are illegal, which is correct. However, claims that subscription IPTV services – the main competitor to legal offerings – are dangerous (viruses etc), are at best speculative and at worst, completely untrue.
Apart from being available at a very cheap price (easy when you don’t have to pay for content, of course), what these subscription services do (very effectively) is cut through all the red tape. Prohibitive licensing deals are completely ignored, so fans in Norway get all the matches. Fans in the UK get ‘banned’ Premier League matches on Saturday afternoons.
This is achieved by cherry-picking football content from all over the world. Premier League content that isn’t shown on a Saturday afternoon can be available in Canada, for example. Matches that aren’t available in Norway might be available in several other regions, on several different channels. So, the IPTV providers scoop them all up, to ensure that fans can watch all the matches, wherever they are.
This, of course, is completely illegal and to some extent probably hurts the earning potential of the various leagues around Europe and their broadcasting partners. However, it’s clear that the companies involved have the power – if they so choose – to solve this problem by offering all content, to all people, wherever they are, at a fair price.
Given the tangle of licensing agreements across dozens of regions, this is much – much – more easily said than done, few people will argue with that. But the cold, hard truth is that most fans don’t care. If they can’t get matches legally (and particularly if they already have an underperforming subscription service), many will feel justified turning to the high seas.
And it doesn’t matter how ‘clever’ blocking gets either.
A little over a month ago, a person in charge of a licensed premises quickly showed TF an IPTV service offering HD streams of Premier League matches (on a Saturday and all week, for that matter) for £2 per month – along with more than 6,000 other channels too.
The only motivation for this person to buy this package was access to 3pm Saturday football, on top of an already expensive Sky subscription that only offers just over 120 matches per season, which is 85 matches less than Norwegian viewers get on TV 2. Why should that draw any understanding from UK subscribers?
Now, via this cheap IPTV service, the person we spoke with finds he can watch all matches and has no need for the Sky package either – talk about counter-productive. Something really needs to be done because blocking is not going to solve this problem.
Make it available legally, at a fair price, everywhere. Or get eaten by pirates.
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