Guest Comment: Protecting sports rights in a multiscreen and OTT world
A recent BBC study exploring the threat of sports content piracy in the UK showed that a third of fans watch illegal streams of matches. If this level of piracy continues or worsens, it will negatively affect record high rights valuations we’re currently seeing, and hit subscription and advertising revenues hard, writes David Briggs, Chairman and Co-Founder, GeoGuard.
The Premier League, FIFA, and other sports rights holders rely on broadcasting rights to make money. In a media environment where content is increasingly consumed online, these revenue streams are at risk from consumers accessing pirated content. Research from the BBC makes the extent of the problem clear: Sky reported a 14% drop in viewing figures for live Premier League matches last season. Viewing figures may be dropping, but It’s our belief that the BBC research shows that this is nothing to do with a decline in popularity for the Premier League, but instead a rise in people watching pirated content.
Premium content (such as sports) drives many people to seek out cheaper ways of watching. Over-the-top (OTT) streaming services is on the rise – Digital TV Research shows that OTT revenues will top $64.78 billion by 2021, up from just $4.47 billion in 2010. The recent increase in consumer broadband availability makes the possibility of profiting by pirating video a realistic possibility. With so much online content and the bandwidth available to stream it, it’s easy for viewers to use a virtual private network (VPN), fake their location, and gain access to streams of geo-fenced sports content. Products like Kodi media player have only added to the problem; by using Kodi add-ons in combination with a VPN, users are illicitly accessing geo-restricted content and foreign live streams.
We call the accessing of geo-fenced content geo-piracy. It’s not an issue that TV providers or rights holders should take lightly – in a recent piece of research, GlobalWebIndex found 33% of respondents would consider leaving their TV supplier in order to exclusively watch content online, and 39% would switch to an international vendor.
The UK is set to become the battleground for Kodi, Roku, and other similar services. This is partly because the majority of the games kick-off on Saturday at 3 o’clock and aren’t available on live in the UK, either on TV or streamed OTT. However, these games are streamed in other regions, leading to UK sports fans to hide their location and access these games through geo-piracy methods.
As more and more TV content is made available online, protecting that content has never been more crucial for the survival of the Pay TV industry. Globally, it relies on the drawing power of the most popular sports, so falling viewership figures are by no means a UK-only issue: ESPN has lost 12 million US subscribers in the last six years alone.
Protecting content by restricting the devices that sports streams are available to is just not a viable solution. The multiscreen genie is out of the bottle: it would be too frustrating for viewers who do pay for legitimate access to content to have the option of streaming on a tablet or smartphone taken away.
In the search for a solution, we are starting to see rights holders block fake IP addresses. The Premier League recently won a court injunction to block a series of IP addresses that were known to be used to access content illicitly. However, such methods are simply a game of whack-a-mole, with a new threat cropping up as quickly as the last one is taken down. As was the case in this example, where within hours there were websites and forums reporting to have found a way around the block. These companies need the strong protection against geo-piracy that we have developed which identify and block illicit access to geo-restricted content and detect new threats.
TV providers will continue to pay enormous sums for the rights to sports content – but if traditional and geo-piracy continue to flourish, it’s inevitable that there will be downward pressure on rights valuations, and ad/subscription revenues will take a hit. Billions of dollars at stake, so it’s crucial that sports content is protected as well as it possibly can be.