May 11, 2021

Illegal Football Streaming – A Threat To Legitimate OTT Business?

Illegal Football Streaming – A Threat To Legitimate OTT Business?

Illegal streaming is… well, illegal. It takes no genius to work out that free live streams of sports events are at least slightly fishy. But when fans see the world’s biggest football stars enjoying sketchy streams with sub par quality – questions are asked. And from the business point of view – how big of an obstacle is the piracy underground for investing in OTT?

Neymar, the world’s most expensive footballer, a 36.8 million-a-year earner, has lately been “caught red-handed” watching an illegal football stream. Having fueled a dramatic public outcry led by those who “fail to believe Neymar doesn’t pay for football”, the Brazilian has unintentionally raised another key matter. Is it even possible to watch football legally?

FLIS – Illegal Streaming Background

FLIS (Free Live Streaming) is a term coined by a research group led by Muhammad Zubair Rafique. They define it as follows: 

“FLIS services enable free viewership of video content, albeit typically without the consent of a content owner, of TV channels and live events for Internet users. These services manage infrastructure to facilitate costless anonymous broadcasting of live streams, and maintain websites to index links for free live streams”

The football streaming websites we have all most likely stumbled upon, in this ecosystem, are called aggregators. They collect, catalog and share links and/or embedding codes to live streams. The “original” content comes from channel providers – they maintain media servers and broadcast (most commonly) stolen content as a third party.

And what’s the business model? Ads, obviously. A 2014 study by Digital Citizens Alliance showed that the “industry” projected a 227 million dollar annual ad revenue. And to add to that – the costs of operation are almost non-existent, resulting in FLIS providers turning up to 94% profit! 

Where There’s a Need, There’s a Market

You most likely know the picture – an extremely sketchy website with even more sketchy ads. A true monstrosity that looks like someone’s very first HTML coding experiment. Ads overlapping ads, convincing you both to open your account at the bookies (all at once) and get to know ladies from your local area. 

The whole aura of such websites is anything but inviting. User experience design is unheard of. Yet users willingly expose themselves to behaviours which would be more than enough for them to exit any other website. 

Why? 

Because they’re saving money, simple as that. They accept and experience far beyond their standard range of tolerance, as they are provided with profit, albeit intangible. Flipping the coin – we’re observing an absolute phenomenon in web design terms. FLIS owners can afford to neglect every single principle of pleasurable user experience, not worrying about losing income.

Ampere Analysis identified 4 key triggers driving sports fans to FLIS websites:

  • Lack of installations and long-term contracts
  • Ease of use
  • Cross-platform availability
  • Low (or no) cost

The Fans of the EPL report, published by OLBG showed that as many as 42% of surveyed Brits have watched football via illegal streams. And to even further twist the knife – 22% have done so with full awareness of illegality.

Illegal Football Streaming – A Threat To Legitimate OTT Business?

It’s not just about having a rough experience – FLIS users are exposed to much more serious threats. Research has shown that football streaming sites benefit from user tracking, potentially also selling on collected data to third parties. 

Furthermore, the most prevalent threat coming from FLIS environments is exposure to malware. The aforementioned research led by Zubair Rafique shows that clicking on ads (which is often impossible to avoid, due to the usage of hidden <iframe> elements) leads users to malware-hosting web pages every second time!

Is Streaming Football Illegal? 

The question we all end up asking ourselves – is (illegal) streaming illegal (oh, the irony)? In fact, it’s not all that straightforward. While it’s unsurprisingly obvious that providing streams is against the law (especially when copyright infringement generates profit for the streamer), being on the other side is different.

The story takes us back to 2016, where an anti-piracy organisation, BREIN, filed a complaint against a Dutch dealer selling multimedia players with a KODI plugin. Long story short – the European Commission sided against distribution of such piracy-facilitating hardware, yet ruled out the illegality of consuming third party streamings. 

The reason behind such a statement is the nature of a viewer’s activities – both absence of download and possible unawareness of copyright infringement. However, the law differs from country to country – in the US being caught red-handed on streaming from illegal sources may equal a $750 fine

It is highly unlikely that legal actions will be taken against a FLIS user – the authorities target those who provide the material (especially if they turn profit from copyright infringement), with jail time being a likely consequence. “Casual users” should worry more about the aforementioned malware and data tracking. 

Illegal Streams and Piracy or Romanticism and Egalitarianism?

As it’s no secret that today’s internet society is accustomed to receiving free content (or holds awareness of consuming in dispense of ad targeting), illegal streaming has another motive. A Yahoo article on the matter quotes a FLIS owner, who claims to be driven by rising fees of subscriptions and broadcasters who “don’t think of people without money.”

Even though this Robin Hood-esque anti-capitalistic mask for blatant fraud seems mostly grotesque and pretentious, paying a small dose of attention to FLIS user motivations uncovers a major problem of today’s broadcasting. 

It’s barely possible to watch legal football. 

Neymar illegally watching the Campeonato Brasileiro in his Paris-based home sparked controversy, but when digging a little deeper, it turns out there is no French broadcaster for the Brazilian league

But sometimes, even despite paid availability, it costs an arm and a leg to be a righteous and noble viewer. We took the trouble to count the annual cost of subscriptions a UK citizen has to pay to watch what every football fan would consider a “starter pack” – the top 5 leagues and UEFA Champions League. And we’re speaking of truly mind-blowing numbers.

Illegal Football Streaming – A Threat To Legitimate OTT Business?

One thousand, one hundred and eighty-eight pounds. For many people, that’s a downright unreachable amount to spend on just football streaming. And even if one can fork out over a thousand pounds for sports coverage, switching around between a number of subscriptions is painfully inconvenient. 

Things got ugly when the Premier League, after taking a strong hit from the coronavirus outbreak, introduced a PPV service, asking £14,95 for a single game. The sheer fact that viewing each game in this system translated to a fee almost 45 times bigger than the same service costed in Australia, caused absolute turmoil. 

A study by Finder.com found out that 24% of those who admit to watching illegal football streams do so because of overwhelming TV package prices. Furthermore, the rate of illegal streaming had increased during lockdown, potentially due to the proposed fee for VOD. 

How To Fight Against Illegal Football Streaming? 

Premier League clubs estimate to take an approximately £1 million hit in broadcast revenue each game due to football streaming websites. Although it does seem to be a drop in the ocean (especially in the context of the league’s £9 billion broadcasting deal), the hit is much stronger. 

Money from selling television rights is shared over lower divisions, hence a hit at the tip of the iceberg resonates to the very grassroots. Decrease in broadcast revenue indirectly influences the holistic level of football. 

One of the most popular aggregators (top 4k websites in the United States via Alexa Traffic Rank) has accumulated over 7000 requests for delisting from Google’s search results. Having infringed the rights of 4 out the top 5 leagues, and also such entities as NBA, MLB or even Disney, they have seen almost 6000 of their URLs delisted.

Illegal Football Streaming – A Threat To Legitimate OTT Business?

Among the most active reporting organisations in this particular case is the Belgian Jupiler Pro League, responsible for almost 150 reports. The Belgians teamed up with La Liga, gaining access to powerful technology confronting piracy. The alliance’s resources allow them to both detect and identify the FLIS culprit. 

But even then, it’s still up to other parties to take action – Google responds to reports by delisting fraudulent URLs. The more reports – the less ways to reach illegal streams. Organisations such as Rivendell offer commercial service based on tracking and reporting URLs that contain copyright breach.

A case that could prove to be a turning point is the Premier League’s (paired with the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment) triumph over Mobdro. A 2-year investigation resulted in shutting down the world’s largest illegal streaming app, which accumulated over €5 million profit. 

Conclusion

It’s worth the hassle – according to Ampere Analysis, OTT platforms could be looking to gain 5,4 billion dollars on neutralising piracy. Taking part in the battle against FLIS is not quite about defending the ideals of copyright and intellectual property, but an investment with tangible return. 

74% of FLIS watchers are reported to be open to turning to legitimate (paid) solutions if those become available. The market is currently overwhelmed by the cheap and easy route, but the potential for conversion stands. 

Just remember – convenience is the way to go