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It’s time to give sports piracy the red card

Ahead of this weekend's UEFA Europa League and Champions League finals, Mark Mulready, VP Cyber Services at Irdeto, takes a look at the issue of piracy and top tier sport

In today’s streaming age, choice of platform is rife. Take your pick from Apple Plus, Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime; the list continues. Whatever you need – be it a blockbuster movie, hit music album, face-off between sports titans or binge-worthy TV series – you can find it at your fingertips, for a small fee. However, for every legitimate platform you can subscribe to, there are a legion of pirate websites, offering lower quality and lower cost access to all your entertainment needs and desires – illegally, of course. 

The streaming of live sports is of particular interest to pirates. Exclusive sports rights are the crown jewels for pay media operators, driving business growth, and customer retention. So, it’s naturally the most valuable content to pirates, and conversely the most damaging type of content for streaming platforms to have ripped from their libraries. Take the FIFA Club World Cup Final as an example – the number of people who illegally streamed this online via Twitch was double the number of people watching in person. 

Sports piracy is detrimental to the whole commercial chain, from the sports rights owners themselves, through to the traditional or legitimate OTT providers delivering the content. In this article, we explore how sports piracy has evolved over the last few months, the threat it poses to all concerned, and what the industry can do to score a win against the pirates threatening their livelihood.

Sports piracy – a perpetual problem

Live streaming, and in particular live sports, are among the sub-sectors of the entertainment and streaming industries that are the hardest hit by piracy. And this shows no sign of stopping. In December 2019, analyst firm Rethink Research published an article claiming that, while streaming piracy was experiencing a downward trend in the EU, live sports piracy was going strong. Sporting events are no longer reserved for traditional broadcasters – instead, pay TV and OTT platforms have opened up sporting events (think Wimbledon multi-court access through your red button, or Amazon Prime’s ATP tour rights) to the masses, making the content more accessible than ever before. 

However, not everyone watches sports from legitimate sources. In fact, if we look as far back as 2017, 54 per cent of UK millennials were already watching sporting events through piracy services, according to BT. This trend has only continued, as different OTT and pay TV service providers hold different rights, and each service has subscriber costs. The impact on subscription and advertising revenues globally (attributable to general online piracy) is pretty significant – according to Digital TV Research, it’s on course to hit $52 billion by 2022. 

What’s more, the variety of business models that pirates employ to steal and generate revenue makes for a complex and murky environment. The most common business model is that of illegal subscription, whereby users access a dedicated website and pay a regular subscription to view the content. Unbeknownst to many users, these websites often come with an insidious added extra – malware that can help pirates generate additional revenues indirectly by infiltrating user credentials or networks. However, pirates have also been known to harness the sheer scale and reach of social media to share illicit redistribution links to sporting events. The plethora of methods makes it infinitely harder for the authorities and industry players to crack down and police piracy activity. 

Covid-19: adding fuel to the piracy fire

The coronavirus pandemic has arguably accelerated the move towards OTT services, as individuals globally retreated into their homes in order to stem the spread of the virus. While the health pandemic has touched every sector of business, in some respects it has fanned the flames of streaming piracy. 

With virtually all professional sports on hiatus (up until recently, at least), many sports leagues released their content libraries to licensed broadcasters. Pirates took advantage of this to expand their own VoD offerings, to compensate subscribers complaining about the loss of pirated live sports streams. 

Having successfully preserved their business models during the Covid-19 crisis, pirates are now capitalising on the return of live sports to grow their pirate networks. At Irdeto, we’ve observed an 18-fold increase in traffic to popular streaming sites during May and June. We’ve also seen a 50 per cent increase in searches for sports streams between the 1st of June and 9th of July.  

It is clear that pirates are sophisticated, organised, and resilient, and pose the most significant competitive threat to the streaming industry. Therefore, an equally sophisticated, resilient, and holistic cybersecurity response is required to address this threat.

A change in strategy 

In some cases, premium sports rights are licensed globally to more than 100 licensees and exclusivity can be compromised by just one weak link in that chain. Pirates inevitably attack the weakest link to pirate and redistribute that premium content to a global audience. This has prompted a gear change in the way that sports rights are negotiated, in a bid to mitigate the impact piracy has on deals. 

This is evident in the recent piracy compensation deal between beIN Sport and Serie A. As a spokesperson for BeIN Media Group said: “The agreement reached regarding Serie A sets a major precedent, reinforcing what BeIN and other international broadcasters have been saying for years: if rights holders don’t tackle piracy, they’ll only receive non-exclusive fees.”  

With this in mind, we should expect to see sports rights owners doing more to support licensees to preserve the exclusivity and value of their rights. It is also likely that they will include stiffer contractual requirements mandating that licensees implement robust content protection technologies and anti-piracy responses in an effort to preserve the full value of their properties.

Calling time on sports piracy

Any effective solution for tackling sports piracy needs to balance availability and affordability of content with cost-effective and non-intrusive anti-piracy measures. It’s a delicate balance, but one that can be struck with tools and technologies that are available right now – and are highly effective. 

Adopting forensic watermarking solutions for live and VoD content protects the value chain on both broadcast and OTT networks. Automated detection and enforcement mean content owners, broadcasters and OTT networks can detect online piracy, issuing enforcement notices quickly to ensure infringing content is removed from the public domain. Finally, real-time reporting of anti-piracy activities means users can see details on detection rates, enforcement activities, and compliance metrics at a glance, to ensure business responsiveness and revenue protection. 

The good news is the tide is turning, and as a collective industry, we’re starting to win some battles. Very recently, Spain’s LaLiga chalked up another win in this ongoing fight by working together with the Danish Rights Alliance to put a stop to the illegal Rojadirecta platform. But if we’re going to win the war against sports piracy, and finally give pirates the red card, we need to present a united front and strategy that combines intelligence, cutting-edge technology and the backing of authorities globally.