Piracy has increased as viewing habits among sports fans have changed in recent decades, thanks to younger demographics and the increased usage and capabilities of the internet. Younger fans largely watch sports online, but the lack of affordability and legal streaming options in some countries contributes to piracy. Legal options need to be made available in all countries, and existing options should be made cheaper, with surveys indicating that many who illegally stream would not do so if there was an affordable alternative.

Listed below are the key industry trends impacting the sports piracy theme, as identified by GlobalData.

Anti piracy legislation

Part of the difficulty in prosecuting pirates is the global nature of sport. This has been especially problematic for the US, which is often unable to deal with illegal streams due to its weak legislation regarding the matter. Attempts to crack down in North America were stalled after a proposed ‘Stop Piracy Online Act’ fell apart following concerns from tech giants.

In Europe, cases have been easier to prosecute due to stricter digital copyright laws compared to North America, and there have been several cases in the UK where illegal streaming providers have been prosecuted for broadcasting Premier League matches.

Never-ending growth

Some have likened the battle against sports piracy as a game of ‘whack-a-mole’. Every time the authorities make some progress on taking down illegal distributors, more spring up in their place. While sports leagues such as the NFL, NBA, NHL, and the Premier League are committed to tackling the problem, it seems incredibly easy to set up replacements in an almost infinite loop.

The professionalisation of pirate organisations combined with the simply overwhelming volume of illegal streams makes the problem completely impossible to regulate. The freedom the internet provides only perpetuates this problem.

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By GlobalData

Social media

The spread of illegal content has been facilitated by social media, with illegal links often being promoted and posted on platforms such as Twitter. As social media sites are inherently designed to share information, pirates on social media can be very difficult to trace.

Live streaming on social media is usually encouraged by the platforms themselves but is exceptionally difficult to monitor, so some pirates will live stream directly on these sites. In 2020, Facebook removed 5.31 million pieces of content that infringed copyright laws, an increase on the 3.66 million pieces removed in 2019.

Password sharing is piracy

While considered a much lesser form of piracy, this is an issue that is costing streaming services millions. Many individuals will share their passwords to platforms such as Netflix with their friends, ensuring that multiple users have access while only paying for one account. This means that the platform will miss out on the extra money accrued from these other potential subscribers.

This also means that it becomes difficult for the platform to work as intended with regards to recommendations and preference data, as this information is not coming from one individual as it should be. In total, it is estimated that Netflix loses approximately $192m a month from this practice.

Illegal revenues

While most pirated streams remain free, some illegal streaming providers have begun charging subscriptions fees for their services in an attempt to make money off the situation. There are reportedly thousands of pirated TV services around the globe, with collective revenues estimated to be in the range of ten figures.

Most of these services revolve around providing live sports and pay-per-view (PPV) events for a fraction of the price of a cable subscription. While these services are at the risk of being shut down without a moment’s notice, many subscribers no longer care and are more willing to take a risk than pay significant sums to watch legally.

Covid-19 pandemic saw piracy increase

The Covid-19 pandemic indirectly led to piracy numbers soaring, particularly in the early stages. With many people stuck at home due to government-enforced lockdowns, they had more spare time and began watching more TV shows and movies illegally.

This was further accelerated in 2021 by the film industry, with major studios realising that they could not keep holding their big releases for a cinema release. These movies were subsequently released on streaming services, and then immediately ripped and uploaded to free sites, which drove enormous traffic.

Territorial restrictions

Some international fans of sports are forced to turn to piracy to watch their favourite sports due to the lack of robust broadcasting infrastructure and a lack of media rights deals in their countries. However, even those in more developed countries are hampered from watching their favourite teams, as many fans are in the US.

NBA League Pass is a global streaming service available to fans around the globe, and grants access to every NBA game live. However, for those who use the service in the US, their local team’s games are blacked out to encourage fans to watch on cable instead, which can be very expensive for some. These restrictions encourage fans to seek out pirate streams and highlight the difficulties in finding affordable ways to watch their team.

This is an edited extract from the Piracy in Sport – Thematic Research report produced by GlobalData Thematic Research.