Years ago, football fans (that’s soccer to our US readers) in England were pretty much guaranteed to be able to watch their national team play live. With just a handful of terrestrial channels available, anyone with a TV set could see the matches on BBC or its rival, ITV. Now with satellite subscription channels snapping up the rights to matches, the potential audience is shrinking, from pretty much everyone in the country down to just a few million.
Currently, Irish pay-TV broadcaster Setanta has the rights to broadcast live matches to its 4 million subscribers, of which a maximum of 1.5 million watch the matches, such as England’s World Cup qualifier with Croatia last week. Terrestrial channels, available to most in the UK, have to strike a deal with Setanta to get the match highlights to show to their viewers after the live match has finished. Last week, they failed to reach a deal which meant that football-mad England fans who wanted to view on terrestrial TV were unable to watch their own national team.
In the end, a deal was struck with the ITV network to show match highlights the next day, but by which time everyone knew that England had won 4-1 and although most fans were pleased, all the surprises were ruined. However, those prepared to pirate their favorite sport managed to cut through the satellite/terrestrial split and all the boardroom and financial politics at the click of a mouse.
The majority of the pirates got their England vs Croatia fix from streaming services. Most of them are easy to view with a software client but other streams can be viewed directly in a regular web browser, and there appears to be no shortage to choose from. Ok, the picture quality might not be all that and the commentary might be in Chinese on some streams but since the matches can be heard live on national radio, understandable commentary is accessible, if out of sync.
A much smaller number, around 15,000, downloaded the full match via BitTorrent, which ordinarily would only be available via a subscription to Setanta. Even if a deal had been struck with terrestrial channels, only the highlights would have been available to the masses. But of course, pirates don’t care about subscriptions or the reasons why companies fail to make a deal to enable fans to watch their national team participate in their national sport. They want media and they want it now – and they get it too, either for free via Internet piracy, or at a discount via other less obvious gray-area sources.
The message to media companies is simple – provide wide access to media at a reasonable price and no fuss, and the majority (who can afford it) will be happy to pay. Start aggressively restricting things that people love – like watching football – and then fail to reach agreements to let the fans have even a diluted version in a timely organized fashion, and you’re asking for trouble. Once people start pirating and realize just how much easier, convenient and cheaper it is, it will be hard to get them back, especially once BitTorrent and streaming media devices start to be found in the average living room.