The financially bloated Premier League’s streaming whack-a-mole game has no end

Ian King
A billboard advertising Sky Sports TV and streaming service

We’d all like to pay £10 a month for Premier League live match streaming, but is it in any way realistic to believe that this may some day happen?


The battle against the pirates continues. At the Chesterfield Justice Centre on Tuesday, five men who made over £7m streaming football matches to tens of thousands of customers were jailed for a total of more than 30 years. The group, trading under the names of Flawless, Shared VPS and Optimal, pirated streams of paywalled content including Premier League matches, re-broadcasting them within seconds of their live broadcast, even developing apps and an EPG for their customers.

Users were charged £10 a month for full access, in comparison with the more than £80-per-month bill that is routinely charged to views who subscribe to Sky Sports and BT – soon to be ‘TNT’ – Sport, and that’s before we mention Amazon.

Until they were caught, those convicted seem to have done quite well out of their little enterprise. Over the course of  five years, it was reported that they made more than £7m, with one making more than £1.7m alone. That person, Richard Gould, is now starting an 11-year prison sentence for his involvement.

One defendant had concealed £500,000 in his parents’ bank accounts to hide it from view. Another claimed to have been an undercover informant, but was found to have hacked legitimate customers’ accounts to access and copy streams so they would take the blame if identified by authorities. One was also convicted of multiple unrelated offences including possessing indecent child imagery, and was arrested as he attempted to leave the country. 

The Premier League and its broadcast partners will obviously be delighted by these developments, but it’s difficult not to raise an eyebrow at such severe sentences being handed out over such offences – indecent child imagery excepted, of course – when the amount of money that they made, while huge to the ordinary person in the street, is a drop in the ocean in comparison with the amount of money that the Premier League makes from broadcasters in the first place.

The current deal is worth £4.7bn over three years, just over £1.6bn per year, so the total amount made by this little scheme over five years was 0.04% of the total that the broadcasters paid for the rights per year. It certainly doesn’t sound like the victims of this larceny have been enormously financially impacted by this criminal behaviour.

But that, of course, isn’t really the point. The point is to make a very public statement that anyone who does engage in this sort of behaviour could end up in this sort of position. And for those who have merely taken advantage of their low, low prices, the implication is clear – if you spend your money with them, you are not only supporting a criminal enterprise, but you will also have ended up on some sort of database that could be used against you too. Minor details, such as the fact that no-one has ever been prosecuted for merely watching illegal streams, tend to get overlooked at such times.

This has always been the modus operandum for those seeking to protect their intellectual copyright, the theory being that a combination of going after those who are actually facilitating the streaming while heavily implying that users could receive a knock on the door at any time can knock out both the supply chain and the demand.

In January, a story was presented in the media that these visits would be taking place, but the messaging on the subject was somewhat muddled, with news outlets reporting that 1,000 users of such streams would be doorstepped by the police and others reporting that it had already taken place. Four months on, searching social media doesn’t offer any evidence that any of these visits actually ever actually happened.

The utopia of paying £10 a month to watch every Premier League match live seems vanishingly unlikely to ever happen. After all, £10 a month may well be what people are used to paying for, say, Netflix or Spotify, but it’s also more than the cost of Sky Sports 30 years ago. Live Premier League football was positioned as a premium product decades ago, and this is reflected in the cost. And that’s before we look in the direction of the vast, vast financial losses that these ‘disruptive’ streaming services have incurred over the years. Netflix lost $4.5bn (£3.64m) in 2022 alone.

Times have changed. When regional television broadcaster Anglia Television bought rights to broadcast the highlights of 30 matches from the Football League in 1962, they paid £1,000 for the privilege. The average viewer now pays that sort of money every year for the rights to watch it. The cost of living crisis has accentuated just how grotesque these costs are, with Sky having put up their prices by an average of 8.1% at the start of April and BT Sport having increased theirs by an average of 14.4% a month earlier. In a battle between the pirates and the broadcasters, it can be difficult to see much moral high ground between the two.

This feels like an unwinnable war, but one which the broadcasters and leagues feel obliged to continue to protect the value of their broadcasting rights. The imprisonment of a small number of wrong ‘uns will barely make a dent in the popularity of illegal streaming, but the fortunes of the game are now so deeply intertwined with the fortunes of its broadcasters that to change the broadcasting model would necessitate vast changes to the overall structure of the game. There is no perfect solution, so the eternal game of streaming piracy whack-a-mole will continue.