Illegal streaming exists because football broadcasting is no longer fit for purpose

Date published: Tuesday 24th January 2023 6:43 - Ian King

Premier League 'golden days' have been fuelled by pay-TV

The matter of illegal streaming is inevitably tied to the future of football broadcasting, but the matter is more complex than just ‘making it cheaper’.


It’s a debate that won’t go away. Illegal streaming made an appearance in a curious article in The Athletic (£) over the weekend, in which various sources talked about the extent to which they are working to tackle what they describe as ‘a headache that will not go away’.

It was an oddly one-sided article, featuring representatives from two ‘anti-piracy’ advocacy groups – the Audiovisual Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAPA) and the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) – but no counter-arguments and no suggestion whatsoever that there could be a better way of structuring the broadcasting of football that actually benefitted broadcasters, their audience and the game itself. 

Because the reality of football broadcasting is that changing anything much from the current orthodoxy would require an enormous amount of work and could quite easily blow up in everybody’s faces.

Initially, clubs were so worried that any televising of football would be ruinous for attendances that they simply didn’t allow matches to be shown at all. A brief experiment with showing Football League matches live on Saturday evenings in autumn 1960 failed after one match, with neither broadcasters nor the League thinking that it had been that much of a success.

When regular weekly highlights of matches started to be shown a couple of years later, it was done in an atmosphere of near-paranoia on the part of clubs, with broadcasters prevented from even mentioning which matches they would be showing highlights of that night or the next day until 15 minutes before kick-off, in case anyone made a last-minute decision to not attend and watch that night’s Match of the Day instead.

When live Football League matches finally did arrive in 1983, coverage could be sporadic and was occasionally interrupted by industrial action or, as happened for the entire first half of the 1985/86 season, because the League and the broadcasters couldn’t reach agreement over contract terms.

Since the Premier League ushered in three decades of top-flight football being put behind a paywall, the broadcasting landscape has changed almost beyond recognition, but it’s long felt as though the game in this country has been a step or two behind these technological developments.

The first home broadband connection in the UK was installed in 2000 and it only took until 2005 for broadband connections to start outnumbering dial-up connections, but making matches available to stream legally lagged behind and coverage has remained primarily tethered to television packages, which are expensive and increasingly unpopular with younger viewers.

The 3pm blackout dates back to this 1960s paranoia. Crowds certainly did decline from the early 1960s until the mid-1980s, but decrepit facilities, ever-growing hooliganism and increasingly defensive football had a bigger impact on this than whether matches might be shown on TV some hours later. After all, the blanket coverage of the game in the 21st century hasn’t had a negative effect upon attendances. But nowadays the justification for keeping the blackout in place has moved subtly, a shift in emphasis towards protecting smaller clubs from vast swathes of people staying away from local matches to watch matches on the television.

What we have today is a mish-mash of laws layered on conventions, of vested interests ensuring that their voices are heard louder than anybody else’s and well-meaning rules and regulations that just aren’t working. But from The Athletic’s article, there doesn’t seem to be any alternative to the current status quo.

The belief that piracy can be ‘stamped out’ seems as pervasive as ever, even though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that continuing to do so has only really resulted in a perpetual game of ‘whack-a-mole’ which broadcasters and the police simply cannot win.

But what might an alternative model to the current one look like? Well, first things first, any new model would have to benefit a two-thirds majority of Premier League clubs, or they’d never vote for it. When the Premier League was first being formed there were rival bids and the biggest clubs of the time supported an ITV bid which promised the continuation of a status quo which had suited them quite nicely over their previous four-year contract, with almost total dominance of the matches shown live. But when it came to voting, the offer from Sky of a wider distribution of a greater number of matches and more money was what won the day with a majority of clubs.

And this, of course, causes a problem for any sort of all-you-can-eat streaming service. It’s tempting to think that football could just follow a similar model to Spotify, charging a relatively modest amount for everything in the hope that the vastly increased number of matches and a lower price would persuade many more to sign up. They did it with Spotify and they did it with Netflix, so why couldn’t it be done with Premier League football?

There are, obviously, issues with this. Considering that almost all of the ‘big’ matches are already shown live, how many subscriptions could the Premier League sell? Would it more than cover the amount that the current array of broadcasters currently pay for rights to broadcast? What would the set-up costs be and how accessible would it be? And what happens in the event that there’s a downturn in viewing figures? This scenario certainly doesn’t seem to encourage financial stability.

One alternative vision for the future of sports broadcasting would be for every game to be available on pay-per-view (PPV), but considering that the EFL set the price to stream individual matches on IFollow at £10 per match for a single game, it seems unlikely that many bills would come down with its introduction. Even those who pay for Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime pay less than £100 per month at the moment (which is, for the record, far too much). If all matches went to PPV, the days of slouching on the sofa watching four or five games per weekend may have to end.

And it’s also worth asking what would happen to the money from PPV. Would the home club keep it all? Would home and away clubs keep what they sold? Because if there was a cast iron way of opening up the gap between the richest and the rest even wider, it would be to change the structure of TV money distribution so that the biggest clubs keep all the revenue from their matches.

Secondly, it would have to be legal, and this means complying – at present – with the Competition Act 1998. This law was amended in 2021 to ‘allow the parties to renew the Premier League’s current domestic broadcasting rights agreements on materially the same terms without the normal competitive tender process being carried out and without fear of facing legal challenge under UK competition law’, with the previous contract being extended to the end of the 2024/25 season in order to quell any concerns about the knock-on effects of the pandemic causing a significant downturn in the value of the 2022 contract. 

In other words, a competitive tender process is burnt into the law of the land, and withdrawing football from that altogether would be a radical change to the landscape of the game. Flights of fancy about removing the game from pay-TV may have to take a back seat. Current competition law demands that they have the right to bid.

In some respects, football finds itself in a position not unlike that in which the music industry found itself at the turn of the century, when software like Limewire made peer-to-peer file sharing available for the first time. That industry found some degree of stabilisation through streaming services – though many artists remain unhappy at the amount that they receive – and that makes the idea of some sort of Backofthenetflix seem appealing.

But there’s a problem with this analogy. The economies of music and football are very different to each other, with football having pushed itself into a position in which multi-million pound contracts are necessary for survival.

Clubs aren’t going to accept lower revenues from broadcasting, especially when most Premier League receive more than half of their annual revenue from it. And it is always worth remembering that leagues are ultimately steered by those who run the clubs that are members of them. It’s also not completely cut and dried that fans would want it, either.

Support for the Premier League introducing a streaming service at a low cost would ebb away pretty quickly if clubs found themselves in financial bother as a result, or if players started heading abroad en masse because English clubs had to slash their wage budgets because they could no longer afford them.

Every step of the way, ideas of changing the models football broadcasting run head first into a brick wall. Clubs will demand at the absolute least the same amount of money that they get now. Leagues themselves will baulk at the lack of certainty that comes from having to deal with subscriptions and payments themselves, and will not want to underwrite any losses should those fall below expectations.

The rest of Europe may well watch in bewilderment as the Premier League, which many consider to be the European Super League which has already arrived, blows up a financial model which has made it the envy of the rest of the continent.

There are ways in which the current state of affairs could be improved for consumers. The Premier League could insist that a certain number of live matches – even a small number, say one per month – be made available to free-to-air broadcasters. They could move all their fixtures away from 3pm on a Saturday, which would allow to show them all live without breaking the blackout.

Rules which make the League sell their TV rights in packages were brought in with good intentions – it was deemed anti-competitive to sell to one broadcaster only – but have backfired, with the primary result being that those who want as much Premier League as it’s legal to watch ended up having to subscribe to three different paying services to do so. This should be reviewed.

And it’s certainly true to say that there are a substantial number of people who would pay for matches that they stream but are unable because of rules that are in place that don’t make sense in the 21st century. It’s understandable that people in this country see people from abroad paying less for more football and are aggrieved, but the ‘less’ part of that is understandable.

The Premier League matters less to people in, say, Germany, Italy or Spain than it does in England. The market sets the price, and in other countries that price is lower. You can rest assured that it’s been researched to the most granular detail possible and is being charged at the highest price considered feasible.

The ‘more’ side of it is more complex. There are good reasons why the 3pm blackout is actually enforced in this country. But that doesn’t mean that the current status quo has to remain. There are plenty of ways in which the broadcasting of live Premier League football could be updated or improved, and we shouldn’t shy away from significant reform.

Every Premier League match not being available live on the TV in England feels wrong. Still seeming to prioritise cable TV over streaming feels outdated, although that may be a reflection of the fact that comfortably-off boomers are considerably more like to be able to afford it in the first place.

But the reality of the situation is that nothing will change without the will of the leagues, and that means the will of the clubs. Fans want it cheaper, but to do that would require seismic changes in the game. Would we collectively be prepared to accept reducing the amount of TV money coming into football, and whatever the implications of that might be? Might we already be in too deep for that? It would ultimately require the reversal of a 30-year trajectory in the cost of live sports on pay-TV for it to happen, and not only in this country.

If the history of this sort of thing is anything to go by, the sort of shows of strength currently being advocated by AAPA and FACT probably won’t make much of a dent in the number of people streaming matches. What makes a difference with piracy is usually an affordable, legal solution. With the illegal downloading of TV shows and movies, it was Netflix. With p2p music file-sharing, it was Spotify and Apple Music.

Primarily, football has piracy because it hasn’t made that next leap forward yet. And at this late stage in the game, the most important questions are what that next step looks like when it comes, and who benefits from it the most.

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