Premier League rumoured to be considering live streaming matches to fans

Rumourmongers in the channel are whispering about the possibility of the British Premier League starting an over the top (OTT) live streaming model direct to fans, in a bid to counter the rapid growth of piracy amid dropping viewing figures and increasing broadcast rights fees.

This comes as a recent BBC 5 live Daily survey of 1,000 people carried out in March this year, found that nearly half of fans (47%) say they have streamed a match online through an unofficial provider, and just over a third do so at least once a month and about one in five at least once a week.

Meanwhile, Sky spent £4.2 billion to show its 126 games from the Premier league annually over the next three seasons (beginning 2016), and BT paid £960 million, according to figures from the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB), at a value of £10 million per game. Yet viewing figures from BARB for the 2016-2017 English Premier League season released in June 2016 show a 14% drop in average viewing time for Sky based on the 126 matches shown, and a 2% drop for BT based on its 42 games broadcast, a fall of 6% for total viewing annually.

New markets and superfans

So is a live streaming service for fans the answer to the English Premier Leagues growing number of problems? Sam Rosen, managing director and vice president for video, OTT and augmented and virtual reality at ABI Research, comments: “In general, OTT services for sports broadcasters have helped achieve two major goals.  First is reach into new markets that are under-utilised by existing broadcast rights agreement, and second is monetisation to superfans of all of the matches and archival footage which may exceed broadcast capacity.  Generally sports streaming services increase revenue for the league from secondary sources but don’t alter the large and growing rights fees from the tier 1 broadcasters.”

Rosen says improving the streaming access to Sky and other pay TV subscribers, through mobile and multiscreen applications and improved experiences, could help increase viewing figures. He notes this can work effectively through broadcaster-owned multiscreen platforms (ie, Sky Go,) or league-owned applications authenticated with pay TV credentials (ie, Premier League App with Sky credentials). 

Yet Rosen warns: “Expanding the streaming access via the Premier League application to standalone subscriptions would need to carefully be done in a way which does not diminish value of broadcast rights. For example, in the US has local team blackouts while the NFL applications exclude some live broadcast matches.”

David Briggs, chairman at GeoGuard, a provider of geolocation-powered fraud technology, confidently states that viewing figures for the likes of BT Sport and Sky are not really sliding. He says, “it is just that the ratings for matches are based solely on old fashioned set top box monitoring”. He continues: “The reality is that with Kodi box penetration at 15% in the UK (and 8% in US) plus the widespread usage of virtual private network’s to watch Premier League games free to air in other countries (or as little as $3 a month with foreign broadcasters like Hot Star India), there is a wider array of ways that people are watching these games that are not being measured and are not generating revenue.”

Targeting illegal downloads

On the issue of illegal downloads and piracy, Briggs states that the uncomfortable truth is that digitising content and broadcasting via OTT has opened a pandora’s box of piracy threats. “The commercial opportunity to open up OTT has probably meant that corners have been cut (or just never put in,) to make the content secure up to this point, so it really has been a pirate’s paradise up to now.

“It is, frankly, so easy to access pirate high quality streams that things can only get better right now,” continues Briggs. “However, it is also true to say that across the global landscape of content protection, there is no entity as switched on or as engaged as the Premier League is to the threats they face. I think the coming season will be a very interesting game of chess between the hunters and poachers of digital content.”

Leagues are moving to much more centralised piracy prevention services, says Rosen. With the biggest contributions to piracy of live events being capturing and rebroadcasting streaming, there is an increased focus on tracking social media and ‘dark web’ sites to find the source of the piracy and shutting down the IP addresses where the content originates from. “Increasing use of watermarking technology, especially which can identify a specific subscriber of a pay TV service, can enable disrupting the source of pirated content during a live match,” states Rosen.

Dan Finch, chief commercial officer at Simplestream, which provides OTT live and VoD streaming solutions, comments: “I think ideas like [OTT live streaming] would totally address piracy. People are fed up paying for Premier League content via Sky. In the music arena, services like Spotify have helped reduce piracy; the same could happen here,” he notes.

Making OTT services work

The best way for an OTT service to work for the Premiership would be a subscription service, says Finch. “Something like a season pass,” he states. He thinks a free hub containing fan zones, club sections, and forums, with a pay-wall behind which fans can watch live matches, would work. “If the price was about £10 per match it could be a really good opportunity for clubs themselves, as well as the Premier League. You only need 10,000 to 20,000 subscribers and it pays for itself,” he says. “Direct to consumer propositions can coexist with exist together with existing ones. Certainly for the younger demographic, they are turning away from premium live sports on cable platforms in favour of illegal streaming services, so a direct OTT consumer proposition would be of benefit.”

Rosen says most leagues work with technology providers, such as joint cooperative BAMtech (formerly MLB’s Advanced Media), Neulion, or NBC-owned Playmaker Media, to launch and syndicate their subscription OTT platform. They also have the option of working with a variety of providers, including Ooyala, Kaltura, and Pixsel, to build a fully integrated offering. 

“YouTube, Facebook and Twitter generally would not host the core application and broadcast platform,” Rosen remarks. “Instead, they provide large syndicated audiences for promotional matches, and are starting to bid for sports rights against traditional broadcasters. Generally, broadcasters today are looking at these third parties as increasing engagement among younger audiences and therefore are looking at these as brand extension and reach campaigns.”

Initial monetisation of an OTT service would, says Rosen, “increase legal and easy to find distribution in regions without strong or exclusive broadcast partners, as well as upselling superfans to be able to watch every match their teams participate in”.  He continues: “Over time, carefully introducing premium elements into domestic territories in a way which doesn’t threaten the broadcasting rights holder’s revenue model, such as understanding the history of matches between two teams and/or understanding players previous match-ups, while making all content available to all users, can help increase monetisation.”

Taking it forwards

Rosen says that today, sports are increasingly available internationally and leagues that once had limited geographical distribution are finding ways of being distributed internationally.  “Many sports, notably Formula One racing, have tapped into a large number of camera feeds broadcast with low latency to change the viewer experience, with cockpit camera angles and pit feeds giving consumers a personalised way to view the content,” he says.

“The Rio Olympics saw domestic broadcasters Globosat and Net Servicos live broadcast nearly every event in real time with a variety of produced and live-feed cameras, broadcasting up to 64 simultaneous feeds,” continues Rosen, on new technologies being used to attract audiences. “As you look to the future, Intel Sports (based on Replay TV and True VR camera) has a vision and system in which they are able to capture a full stadium from multiple camera angles and generate a realistic real time spatial map of the stadium to allow infinite flexibility over viewing angles, also enabling virtual reality and 3D viewing of content.”

Finch concludes: “I think the way the platforms have been evolving and the proliferation of mobile devices, there is no reason why the Premiership couldn’t have a direct to consumer proposition. A key piece for them is to have a voice to the fans, direct. At the moment, Sky owns the customers, not the Premiership and not the football clubs.”

However, despite the potential of OTT, a spokesman from the Premier League press office commented that due to rights contracts already agreed, there is no way the Premier League could try OTT live streaming of matches until 2022. He says: “Our broadcast rights and contracts run up until 2022; we have UK broadcasters up to the end of next season (end 2019), but we’ve already sold the rights to overseas territories (including Brazil, China and the US) taking us to the  end of 2022, so we couldn’t change the way we do things until then anyway.” So maybe OTT live streaming of matches is something to contemplate for the future.

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