From Mayweather v McGregor to the Premier League – illegal streams are a problem for everyone

One of the biggest problems for any party involved in producing, broadcasting and advertising around live sport is clearly illegal streaming.

The biggest events attract the biggest crowds, both on TV and in person, of course, and last weekend’s fight between Floyd Mayweather v Conor McGregor is a good example. This was a fight everyone was talking about because it was new, exciting and very different to what we had seen up to this point. It was a boxer taking on an MMA fighter – like pitting the best squash player up against the best tennis player. But almost three million people are reported to have watched the fight on an illegal stream.

All big events require payment from someone. No longer do the biggest fights appear on free-to-air TV. Pay-per-view is an established principle, especially for big fights. And when it came to watching it at home in the US, spending $99 just to watch the fight clearly seemed too steep for some. So too did having to pay the guts of £20 in the UK, especially given the fight didn’t take place until almost 5am. Not only was it an awkward time to watch, it was also not even night time for most people. An early start rather than a late finish.

In such a climate, clearly illegal streams are tempting to lots of people. It’s a topic which is coming more and more into the light around sport, even though it’s a problem that has been around for a very long time. The difference is, whereas downloading films and music was convenient even a decade ago (waiting an hour for a download isn’t inconvenient if you aren’t planning to watch or listen until later), streaming a live event was more difficult, if for no other reason than that internet connections and devices weren’t as good as they are now. And sport is consumed live.

The growing popularity of these streams is clearly an issue for many reasons when it comes to sport, but one problem – which has perhaps become bigger over the last few years – is the impact it has on reach. It might not be a surprising fact, but the numbers from illegal feeds were not included in the official viewing figures for the fight. And when we’re talking a potential three million streams, it becomes a substantial audience.

That creates a number of problems beyond the obvious.

Of course, one is indeed the obvious. No matter what your business model is, it surely doesn’t allow for what is basically stealing, especially if it’s on a massive scale to the tune of three million otherwise interested customers. Especially if one of your price points is almost $100. That’s quite a large chunk of lost revenue in itself.

But it’s not just in the simple transaction that the event organisers lose out. They make their money out of the event from ticket and pay-per-view sales, but there’s more to it than that. There’s also sponsorship.

It might be a less obvious worry, but if numbers of viewers watching on illegal streams can’t – or won’t – be counted in official figures, that limits the amount of viewers, even though those who have streamed clearly viewed the fight.

In this case, it’s a fight, but it could be a Premier League football game, a cricket match or the Super Bowl. Either way, the event organisers have attracted more people to the sport than can be accounted for. And that, in turn, gives governing bodies, rights holders and even broadcasting partners fewer bargaining chips when it comes to making sponsorship deals with companies who want to know how many people their logo will reach around the world.

For a one-off event like Mayweather v McGregor, that’s a little bit less of an issue. Sponsors are attracted before the numbers are finalised. But for a sport that happens every year or multiple times a year, it could become a real issue, and not just for organisations and rights holders, but also for individual teams and clubs who negotiate their own sponsorships, partly based on the reach their brands can achieve.

The Premier League, for example, might be relaxed about the whole thing, claiming that the law is catching up to piracy. But in a world where big companies are willing to pay big money to attach their brands to events in order to achieve reasonably intangible goals (measuring the actual results from exposure on social media or on TV during a big event is difficult), raw numbers like viewing figures are incredibly important.

There are so many reasons to attempt to tackle the elephant in the room that is illegal streaming, but there is a positive light at the end of the tunnel: the people who are attempting to watch for free are at least interested in the product. Maybe it will be finding the right pricing structure to persuade them to actually pay for it which will stop the wrong streams from ruining the sport.

About author

Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 480 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and editor of Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan_

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