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Challenging times could spell a new horizon for live sports

Live sports piracy soared during the global pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. We take a look at how innovation can spell a new horizon for live OTT service providers.

During the global pandemic, the streaming of both legal and illegal content soared as consumers stayed home.

In 2020 the live events industry was stunned by the onset of a global pandemic, which inevitably led to a whole host of sporting competitions being paused or cancelled altogether. In regions where events have eventually been given the green light to continue, most matches are being played behind closed doors, in empty stadiums, and live sports piracy is as prominent as ever.

As many sports fans adhered to lockdown restrictions, demand for sporting events was widespread. The absence of live sports left a big hole in the lives of spectators across the globe, and to say that the challenges faced by broadcasters within the live events industry during these unprecedented times have been significant would be an understatement.

Challenges and piracy pre-pandemic for live sports broadcasters

The shift from traditional linear and pay TV broadcasts to OTT streaming services has been gathering pace for a number of years now, and has in itself represented a big challenge, not only for those that are repositioning their services, but also those that are new to this competitive environment. Focus has been on interface, user experience, and reducing latency of live content, whilst competition for the exclusive rights for the most sought-after sporting events has become fierce, not just against other broadcasters within the industry, but also from pirates offering a free or cheaper version of their own content.

There are a whole host of subscription-based services which air live sporting events, however, consumers seem unwilling to pay for multiple subscriptions and as a result turn to pirate content. The widespread availability and consumption of pirate content has made viewing it acceptable to millions of viewers worldwide, whilst the number of consumers who access illegal streams despite subscribing to an OTT subscription is alarming.

The struggle of competing against pirate content, which is cheaper, with access to a far larger portfolio of channels means that innovation and technology plays an important role in differentiating official content from pirate broadcasts. Key players in the industry have largely been focused on implementing new technologies, and providing exclusive content. Recent challenges have perhaps put more emphasis on delighting audiences with a richer, more engaging viewing experience.

Live events and broadcasts during lockdown

As lockdown was implemented, high-profile competitions such as the English Premier League, the UEFA Champions League, and Formula One were all put on hold, whilst highly anticipated events including the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and Euro 2020 were postponed. This left rightsholders and broadcasters anxiously reviewing their contract obligations to verify what was in place in relation to cancelled events due to the global pandemic, or a government decision to pause or cease activity in the industry.

During these early stage’s distributors rushed to adjust their content offering. A new program of events included re-plays of memorable matches, clips of nostalgic moments, esports events, and the live broadcast of the few events which had not been affected in an attempt to retain subscribers.

Internal changes were also required as providers rushed to restructure their broadcasting teams, putting the health of their employees first, whilst continuing to deliver their services to paying customers. Managing consumer expectations, including content, and reducing the cancellation of subscription fee payments were two key tasks on the agenda. The shift to working remotely whilst maintaining a high level of service was in many cases the most significant challenge of all. Early suggestions of a packed fixture list to complete the 2019/2020 season gave many broadcasters and sports fans light at the end of the tunnel.

From a club perspective, most continued paying substantial operational costs despite a significant drop in revenue due to the loss of gate receipts, and merchandise sales. Some high earning players accepted temporary pay cuts, whilst numerous non-playing staff were placed on the furlough scheme put in place to limit a spike in unemployment. The question is, just how long can clubs of varying sizes across the globe manage to survive under such desperate conditions, especially those outside of the top divisions?

Live events and broadcasts today

Whilst some competitions have now resumed, others were cancelled, with final standings determined by algorithms, in a year which will be remembered and shared with generations to come.

The matches, races, and games which have restarted have largely been performed behind closed doors, with many being aired for free in an attempt to deter fans from travelling to stadiums to support their teams.

Challenging times could spell a new horizon for live sports

Plans for a restricted number of fans to return to view the English Premier League matches had been mooted to begin in early October, however these plans were scuppered, as a second wave hit England and other parts of Europe and the World. Initial hopes were that a limited number of spectators would be allowed back into stadiums, ensuring that social distancing was adhered to, but these plans have now been put on hold.

The demand for live broadcasts from the comfort of our own homes appears greater than ever before, but whilst access to such events requires various subscriptions, demand for pirate content is increasing.

Official broadcasters are tackling this trend by introducing new approaches to delight and engage fans. Despite the obvious empty stadiums and the lack of atmosphere, we are seeing that a sense of community has become a key component in their offering. It is however clear that consumer demand for streaming services has accelerated, as has the direct to consumer (D2C) model. Sports broadcasters must adapt and deliver at the same speed to satisfy this new behavior.

Live sports piracy is a persistent and growing threat

Technology has enabled sports fans to tune into watch live events online from thousands of miles away, on their preferred device, however it has also opened the door for unprecedented levels of pirate retransmissions which reduces viewership and revenue for official broadcasters.

During the global pandemic, the streaming of both legal and illegal content soared as consumers stayed home. According to ABI research, live streaming and live sports are at high piracy risk in Europe to the tune of a EUR941 million loss for providers in the last year.

Now live sports are returning to our screens, with staggered schedules, which allows viewers to tune in and view more live sports, which are being aired at unconventional times. Pirates have identified this lucrative opportunity, attracting more consumers than ever before to both subscription-based services such as IPTV, as well as free to view streams often shared across various social networks.

Of course, this comes at a great cost to official broadcasters. Consumers who would otherwise pay for these services are being lured in by often high quality, low cost access to a whole array of live sporting events.

On 03 June 2020 Europol switched off a global piracy network which was being broadcast across three continents, and earning an estimated €15 million in illegal profits, thanks to more than two million paying subscribers. The network was providing illegal access to over 40,000 TV channels for a fraction of the price of legitimate broadcasters including sports, movies, TV series, and much more.   

In other news, BeIN Sports stopped its coverage of Italy´s Series A across 35 territories in July due to the leagues perceived lack of action against live sports piracy, and their relationship with Saudi Arabia. This is the latest in a long line of high-profile reports surrounding the broadcasters fight against digital piracy. Coverage has since recommenced after the two parties agreed a significant price reduction on the original $500 million three-year broadcast deal.

“The agreement reached regarding Serie A sets a major precedent, reinforcing what BeIN and other international broadcasters have been saying for years: if rights holders don’t tackle piracy, they’ll only receive non-exclusive fees.”

BeIN Media Group

The future of live events overview

Perhaps some of the enforced alterations which relate to the way in which live broadcasts are produced and consumed may lead to permanent changes within the industry. One thing is for sure, whilst uncertainty remains around the continuation of live sports, broadcasters and sponsors will not only be attempting to claw back some of the losses they have sustained, but will be less willing to risk bidding the eyewatering sums for the exclusive rights or sponsorship deals for the most high profile sporting events. Contracts between rightsholders, broadcasters, sponsors, and consumers will also be clearer about conditions for such scenarios in the future.

As for consumers, demand for access to the most sought-after live events on the sporting calendar is clear. The necessity to sign up for multiple subscription-based packages is not a model which works for most consumers and is clearly driving sports fans to pirate content. Whilst it may prove impossible to offer all live content on one platform, more flexibility on the packages which broadcasters offer may appeal to different target audiences, from occasional viewers, through to super fans, and sports enthusiasts. One package does not fit all.

Accelerating the use of technology in sports broadcasting, providing interactive content which empowers fans, greater accessibility from home which includes the “watch together” services (introduced by BT Sport and Eleven Sports). Improving camera angles and enhancing sound are all powerful solutions to differentiate official channels from those retransmitting live broadcasts and reverse the growth of live sports piracy.

The irrefutable necessity for live content protection has been on the agenda of leading live sports providers for years, but those launching new OTT platforms must prioritize piracy protection, making it a key element of their business strategies. This is particularly prominent as more and more consumers opt for OTT services. Broadcasters of all shapes and sizes may be competing for content, and market share, however a joined-up approach is crucial in the fight against digital piracy, and in the interest of safeguarding the future of live sporting events.

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