We all consume media in its various forms every single day. Whether you’re binging something on Netflix, streaming an MLS game on ESPN+, listening to the new Vampire Weekend album on Spotify, or Googling the closest happy hour, media and its various forms has completely transformed our lives. Today, soccer fans in the U.S. are lucky – the sport can be watched or streamed in so many ways via a variety of outlets that at times it can be overwhelming to know which team plays on which channel or which streaming platform has the rights to certain leagues. To be honest, it’s a good problem to have. Despite the cornucopia of legal options, however, a significant number of soccer fans (and sports fans in general) still seek out illegal methods of watching games from around the world.
From First Row Sports, to Justin.tv, to VipBox, and beyond, illegal or pirate streaming is a natural part of soccer viewing for many soccer fans and has been for the better part of two decades. In a great, in-depth piece for Yahoo Sports earlier this year, Henry Bushnell provides some insight into illegal sports streaming. I’m going to reference a lot of his piece here, but I highly suggest you read it for full context.
According to piracy data company MUSO, people made 362.7M visits to sports piracy sites in January 2019 alone – a truly mind-blowing number. Buffstreams, one of several currently popular streaming sites, was the 829th most-visited site in the U.S. during a 30-day period in December 2018 and January 2019. That may not sound impressive initially, but when you consider an illegal streaming site had more web traffic than entities like Fox Sports, MLS, and TNT, it throws you for a loop.
For sponsors and advertisers, this represents a big problem. Networks shell out large sums of money to be rights holders of various sports entities; however, they’re losing dollars day after day, month after month, and year after year from viewers watching on ad and malware-laced sites that are, well, free, convenient, and a tad rebellious. Demographically, the NBA’s core audience is a great comparison for insight into the soccer audience. NBA viewership among 18-34 year old is down 50 percent on pay TV from 2010 to 2018 despite having 1.5 billion followers worldwide – a major issue, as there’s more interest than their ratings reflect. For networks and leagues, the missed ad revenue money is nothing to scoff at. Ontario-based Sandvine attributed the North American ad content shortfall of $4.2B in 2017 to the 6.5 percent of internet-connected North American households who access pirate streaming TV services.
So what can the industry do about illegal streaming and what has it done already? The answer is a difficult one. Leagues and various governments around the world have attempted to curtail illegal streaming websites, but they’re hard to pin down and reappear almost instantly – though slightly altered – when taken down. In 2012, the U.S. government seized 16 domain names of streaming websites, four of which belonged to the aforementioned First Row Sports. What happened? The very next day First Row Sports was back online at a different domain name. With illegal streams now appearing on social media platforms where there are looser restrictions on content, the ability for teams and leagues to control who, or what, is broadcasting their games has become more difficult. In 2016, an FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid game was illegally streamed on Facebook and had, at one time, over 700,000 concurrent viewers worldwide. In one bit of good news, however, the Premier League, in 2017, obtained a High Court Order requiring Internet service providers to block streams and ultimately repelled 200,000 illegal streams in the 2017-18 season.
Illegal streamers are serious fans and will go to great lengths to find their team or their league and do it through free outlets. As noted in our 2017-released report, pirates, if you will, support 33 percent more teams, consider themselves 46 percent more hardcore, and are 52 percent more interested in the sport than non-pirate soccer fans. For the 62 percent of pirate streamers who are Millennials, they largely don’t know a world in which illegally streaming games from England, Brazil, or Spain isn’t commonplace.
Much to the chagrin of leagues, networks, and advertisers around the world, don’t expect that to change anytime soon.