High costs driving sports fans to pirated streaming, study reveals

More than 15 million football fans tuned in to watch the Cleveland Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second Monday Night Football telecast of the season, according to viewership data collected by Nielsen Media Research and distributed by ESPN on Tuesday. A survey released this week suggests the audience was probably higher thanks to the proliferation of online sports piracy.

The survey, conducted by the online sports and betting encyclopedia Oddspedia in partnership with Richfield Research, showed nearly half of all football fans have used an illegal streaming service to watch live football in the past, while nearly one-third of those surveyed affirmed pirating live games on the regular to watch their favorite National Football League (NFL) team.

Fans of the Cincinnati Bengals were revealed to use illegal streaming services the most, with nearly 52% of those surveyed admitting they pirate their team's games most often. Residents of Pennsylvania were also more likely to use illegal services to watch NFL content, with more than 71% surveyed affirming that to be the case, Oddspedia revealed.

The survey analyzed the answers from more than 3,200 football fans who were polled through the research platform Prolific. A spokesperson for Richfield Research said participants who engage in Prolific research studies have their identity verified and are "vetted for specific demographic information." The average age of those who responded for the survey on illegal streaming was 42, and more than two-thirds of those who participated were male, which aligns with similar demographics on the average NFL fan in America.

Long relegated to broadcast and cable television, the maturation of cable-like streaming services and standalone sports products along with the fracturing of NFL telecast rights means there are now a number of different options to watch football games online. Those who want to watch most of their live, locally-televised games can and still do so on CBS, Fox and NBC — but they can also subscribe to Paramount+, Peacock and cable-like streaming service such as Fubo and YouTube TV if they want the added flexibility of watching on phones, tablets and computers.

Last year, the NFL itself launched a streaming service that makes locally- and nationally-televised games available on phones and tablets for $6 a month (the price increased by $1 last month). Disney, which is the exclusive rights holder to "Monday Night Football" games, will simulcast more NFL match-ups on ABC this year due to the ongoing writers and actors strike — and most of those games will also stream on its standalone sports service ESPN+. Amazon simulcasts Prime Video's "Thursday Night Football" on Twitch for free. And fans who want access to Sunday games aired on stations beyond their broadcast area can subscribe to the NFL Sunday Ticket package, which moved to YouTube after being exclusive to DirecTV for more than two decades.

Streamers want cheaper options

Despite the efforts of broadcasters and the NFL to offer various legal streaming options for live games, some fans are still choosing piracy — and the reason is remarkably unsurprising.

In Oddspedia's survey, 64% of admitted pirates said they were driven to illegal streaming services because they viewed official and legal options to be too expensive, with the average fan saying they'd be willing to pay $22 a month for a streaming service that allows them to watch their favorite team.

As it stands today, the NFL does not have such an option. Even if it wanted to bring a service like that to market, it isn't clear how broadcasters who have shelled out billions of dollars for telecast rights through 2033 would respond to the idea — but recent comments made by some of the NFL’s television partners suggest rights-holders would be resistant.

Speaking at an investor conference last week, Fox's Chief Financial Officer Steve Tomsic said his company remains bullish on the cable bundle, believing it to be the best way for consumers to get access to the live sports they want.

"The fact that our content is so coveted by those [cable, satellite and cable-like] distributors, as well as the end consumers, means that while others have bets each way, it's incumbent upon us to get a higher share of wallet from those distributors in order to justify the fact that we remain in that bundle," Tomsic said.

His thoughts were echoed by Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch last August, who said putting live sports behind the cable paywall also maximizes the network's ability to recoup some of its investments in sports-related telecast rights.

"At the moment, that premium content drives the most value from being behind a paywall, within the traditional cable and satellite pay-TV universe," Murdoch said. "And we think that pay TV ecosystem, continues to be of tremendous value for our businesses and really drives the value of Fox Sports and that content, and will for a long time to come."

‘Reforms are Needed’

Meanwhile, companies representing various facets of the sports and entertainment industries are banding together to thwart efforts by the platforms that distribute live sports illegally online as part of a broader effort to protect a broadcaster's investment in those rights.

In May, the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE) said it was forming a Sports Piracy Task Force that would work with international law enforcement agencies to bring down sports piracy websites. The task force was formed after sports streamer DAZN joined ACE that same month, with the effort including Qatar-based BeIN Sports Group. (Amazon and the parent companies of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are ACE members, but their participation in the Sports Piracy Task Force is unknown.)

"Intellectual property theft of live sports content is an industry issue, negatively impacting all sports and sports fans, and it needs a global concerted effort to meaningfully tackle it," Shay Segev, the CEO of DAZN Group, said in a statement at the time.

ACE cited a 2021 study from research firms Synamedia and Ampere Analysis that estimates global broadcasters lose $28.3 billion annually due to pirates who illegally stream sports content online. The same study was cited last month by the NFL, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in a letter sent to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in which they urged the federal government to update copyright laws, so they can take quicker action against websites that host or link to illegal content streams.

Under the current law, rights holders can invoke the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to compel an online service provider (OSP) to remove or block access to websites that provide access to illegal live streams. OSPs are provided a "safe harbor" from liability if they act on a DMCA request in an "expeditious" manner.

That terminology is problematic, the leagues say, because OSPs tend to move too slow to act on a legitimate DMCA request — and, by the time they do, the damage has already been done.

"The shared experiences of UFC, [the NBA and NFL] with live piracy has made abundantly clear that current U.S. laws and regulations do not adequately address the unique time-sensitivity of live content," the leagues wrote in the letter.

To fix this, the leagues say they want federal officials to update the DMCA so that the word "expeditiously" is replaced with "instantaneously or near-instantaneously," and force OSPs "to impose particular verification measures before a user is permitted to livestream."

It wasn't clear from the suggestion how changing the word "expeditiously" to "instantaneously" would improve the DMCA, since neither of the terms have a concrete definition. But the leagues suggested the second part of their proposal could be enforced if they verified the identities of people who streamed content online and restricted new accounts from streaming content entirely.

"Certain OSPs already impose measures like these, demonstrating that the measures are feasible, practical and important tools to reduce livestream piracy," the leagues said. "Both of these reforms are needed."