Why Traditional Media is Actually Driving Illegal Soccer Viewing

Pop quiz! Which legal streaming platforms are showing the UEFA Champions League qualifying matches? And where can you watch the English Championship via legal streams? Yeah, we thought so. It’s not easy to know the answers to these questions, right, without digging into a lot of exhaustive online research?

For soccer fans, the world is an amazing place.  In June and July, as long as we had a device with WiFi or data, we could watch every game of the World Cup as well as pre-match and post-match coverage.  Think about it – whether you were on a business trip, commuting to work, at a library, or simply at home without a TV, you had access to the most popular sporting event in the world.  This was unheard of even eight years ago, much less ten or twenty when television was king. If legal feeds of soccer games are so accessible, then why do so many fans still spend time and effort illegally streaming soccer games?

In 2014, we expect everything to stream.  If we can watch Apple launch a new phone from the previous version, we want to be able to watch UEFA Champions League matches at work on that same device.  If I can watch any baseball game simply by opening an app, why can’t I do the same to watch Bayern Munich’s opening Bundesliga match?  Or, maybe I can but how do I know about it and can I find it quickly and easily?

Because the leagues and tournaments all negotiate with different media companies worldwide, it is nearly impossible to track down much less download every app to watch games on demand.  For $130 a year, I can watch any out-of-market MLB game on any device. But because MLB holds the rights to these games, they can offer one portal with varying price packages. Just in the U.S. alone, FOX Sports, regional FOX networks, NBC, beIN SPORTS, GolTV, One World Sports, Premium Sports and ESPN hold the English-language rights to different leagues and competitions — and those are just the TV networks. If you want to stream the games, legally, the options are more numerous and complicated to navigate. Plus the streaming options can be pricey. For example, FOX Soccer 2Go costs $170 annually, but that just gets you the UEFA Champions League, Europa League, CONCACAF Champions League, Scottish Premier League, FA Cup, and some additional smaller tournaments.

So what’s a soccer fan to do?  Increasingly, they find the illegal streams.  While numbers for this year’s World Cup were not available The Hollywood Reporter found that there were over 18,000 illegal broadcasts of matches during the 2010 World Cup, a number undoubtedly dwarfed this year.  With the use of VPN and other technology, a savvy soccer fan can easily find a subscription stream and watch for free while masking their IP address from government and media officials.  In fact, simply Googling a match name can reveal many websites that offer shaky but reliable enough free streams. And, from personal experience, it’s far easier to find an illegal stream than it is to hunt and peck in order to find who streams the same legal version of the online broadcast.

Are free sketchy streams of games illegal? Undoubtedly, but is it necessary?  The case for “yes” is a good one, as there is no reliable alternative for a fan looking for a soccer match.  To be blunt, traditional media companies have done incredibly poorly in informing consumers about what their online options are.  There are many websites that can tell you what traditional media company is showing what match, but there is almost nothing in the way of guidance on how to legally and efficiently watch, say, all of MLS, the Premier League, and the Champions League (all three different apps by the way).  Additionally, if you are not a cable subscriber, the cost of subscribing via these apps skyrockets (e.g., NBC’s EPL matches cannot be streamed free). Meanwhile, crowdsourced efforts, such as this one by Reddit, make it far easier to find out which illegal streaming options are available.

Looking at it from the broadcasters’ perspective, and this new normal makes sense.  As television and movies struggle to adjust their business models to an online world, sports viewing is actually the last bastion of the old model.  TV companies depend on ad revenue, and that model is well established and fairly lucrative on television.  However, the model is more amorphous in streaming – where the expectation to be bombarded with ads is removed – and the revenue streams of streaming do not have a solid model to rival “the boob tube”.  Live sporting events, however, need to be seen live to experience the moment and to be shared via social media.  That is why rights’ fees are skyrocketing for sports leagues. Unlike a show such as House of Cards on Netflix, if you do not watch a sports event the moment it is on, you miss the moment completely.

This rise in revenue from sports means there is less of an incentive for companies to develop a sports streaming model to make it easier for fans to watch legal streams.  This is especially the case if you are a cordcutter. For example, no Verizon service means no more free apps.  In the perfect world, these companies would band together and create one central website where any soccer fan could go, pay a fee, and have access to any number of major soccer league matches.  Or at least to find out what the available legal streaming options are.

Maybe you would pay more to stream via an app, or to include international tournaments, but there is a place and structure you can go to and know where you can watch soccer and find how much it costs? The answer is no.

But this is a pipe dream as long as live sporting events are so lucrative for advertisers and thus for broadcast companies.  Until leagues and their televisors can come together to figure out a solution, illegal streams will continue to be a major part of many soccer fans’ lives.  Extreme repression may get the dumbest of the dumb but as Napster and BitTorrent show, squashing one leads to a more creative successor.  Or maybe these major broadcast companies continue to decry pirating, work on their encryption technology, but ultimately write it off to the cost of doing business.  Regardless, an illegal streaming reality is what we have and will continue to have into the near future. The jeopardy is that the less that leagues and networks do, the more “normal” the act of watching illegal streams is to the younger generation.

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