Being a fan of top-flight football in the UK is an expensive proposition. In 2016, the average price of a season ticket was just shy of £500 a season while watching on TV can cost more than £60 per month.
Of course, there are good reasons for these high prices. Premier League footballers are notoriously highly-paid and with TV rights recently changing hands for more than £5.3bn, money has to be recouped in the most basic of ways – from the fans’ pocket.
While this is a success up to a point, there’s a growing factor upsetting the money men. The rise of online streaming is a thorn in the side of English Premier League, who are having to deal with large numbers of fans obtaining live matches for free via the Internet. But just how many fans are going down this route?
The results of a new survey carried out by the BBC reveal some shocking but perhaps not entirely unexpected results. Carried out online by ComRes between 7 and 15 March among 1,000 fans, it shows that large numbers of fans prefer the free option.
The headline figure is that 36% of football supporters stream Premier League matches online illegally at least once every month, a figure that reduces to just under a quarter (22%) when the frequency is once a week.
However, when fans were asked whether they had ever watched a match through an unofficial online provider, close to half (47%) said they had done so. That’s certainly a worryingly high number for the Premier League.
And if one removes older fans from the equation, things only get worse.
Almost two-thirds (65%) of younger fans aged 18 to 34 say they illegally stream live football matches online at least once a month. Among older fans aged 34 to 54 the figure improves to 33%, dropping to just 13% for the over 55s.
With 29%, the top reason fans gave for streaming content illegally was because “a friend/family member does it and they just watch.” Whether this is fans simply being coy is unclear, but it does suggest that watching football illegally has become a communal pastime, something which can likely be attributed to the rise of set-top boxes running software like Kodi.
Almost a quarter (24%) believe that TV sports packages do not represent good value for money but the only shock here is that the number isn’t higher. It’s certainly possible that many ‘streaming’ fans would never have paid in the first place, so pricing might be less of a factor for them.
Interestingly, 25% of respondents say they stream matches illegally because the quality is good. This is interesting since while illicit streams are both cheap and convenient, quality and reliability isn’t usually high up the checklist. That being said, the BBC research doesn’t differentiate between free streams and cheap IPTV streams, and the latter can indeed rival an official service.
There are also a few interesting revelations when it comes to fans’ opinions on the legality of illicit streaming.
A small 12% of fans think the practice is legal, almost three times less than the number who say it is illegal (34%). Almost three-quarters (32%) don’t know the legal status of streaming from an illicit source.
Following a recent ruling from the European Court of Justice, it is now clear that streaming from an unlicensed source amounts to copyright infringement.
However, enforcing that legislation against people in their own homes would provide similar challenges to prosecuting people who ‘tape’ a friend’s record collection or watch pirate DVDs. It’s just not realistic.
Interestingly, 10% believe it is legal to watch but illegal to upload a stream. That was believed to be the case before the ECJ ruling, but the former has now been clarified.
Uploading streams is very, very much illegal (as is supplying ‘pirate’ boxes) and in the right circumstances could lead to a custodial sentence. However, no regular consumer does this through conventional streaming (through a Kodi-powered device, for example), so it’s a moot point.
A tiny 4% of people believe that unauthorized streaming is not breaking the law but that Sky or BT could still fine them if they found out, which is technically wrong on both counts.
That being said, proving someone watched a stream is extremely difficult and since copyright law in the UK requires that infringers compensate for the losses they’ve caused, any ‘fine’ imposed might only amount to the cost of a match, for example.
Again, the chances of this happening in any way are very unlikely and have certainly never happened to date, even though millions are watching streams via their computers and set-top boxes loaded with Kodi. This is something the Premier League wants to change.
“Fans should know that these pre-loaded boxes enable pirate broadcasts of Premier League football, and other popular content, and are illegal. People who supply them have been jailed or ordered to pay significant financial penalties,” a spokesman told the BBC.
“We are increasingly seeing prominent apps and add-ons being closed down as the law catches up with them, leading to consumers being out of pocket.
“The Premier League will continue to protect its copyright, and the legitimate investment made by its broadcasting partners. Their contribution allows our clubs to develop and acquire players, invest in facilities and support the wider football pyramid and communities – all things that fans enjoy and society benefits from.”