April 27, 2021

Illegal Streaming – When Does The Referee Blow His Whistle?

The piracy of sports broadcasts has become an endemic phenomenon, further accentuated by the 2020 lockdowns and the Mediapro fiasco. Rights holders and broadcasters hope to obtain a legal framework to eradicate it. For a year, "Inferno" has not been idle. In the spring of 2020, the Spanish Football League made the computing power of this supercomputer, which is usually dedicated to a completely different fight, available to a scientific research project on Covid-19: the detection of matches broadcast by pirate sites. First of all, the famous Rojadirecta, where you can always find, under the drawing of a Pierluigi Collina brandishing a red card, daily links to illegal streams of dozens of competitions. The access to the major games of the French Ligue 1 - except, in theory, for French Internet users, because of a court decision - as well as those from a Uzbek second division match obviously filmed with a handheld camera in the stands.

Founded in 2005 by a young Galician Barça fan, Igor Seoane Minan, the site has become one of the symbols of a piracy of sport for which such illict usage is now endemic. This virus, that the CEO of beIN Media Group, Yousef Al-Obaidly, had cruelly dissected at a conference in London in October 2019 by predicting the explosion of the “splendid rights bubble” in an industry “absolutely unprepared” where, he deplored, some rights holders “spend more on their Christmas party than on anti-piracy measures”. Prophetic words in view of the situation of French soccer, threatened by the drop in rights after the Mediapro fiasco.

At the time of the creation of Rojadirecta, the concern of organizers and channels was less about these pirate broadcasting networks than about the practices of the new Web giants. The Professional Football League (LFP) and the French Tennis Federation found themselves involved in a class action against YouTube on the grounds that users were uploading images. “It was a bit like David against Goliath, we were one of the few rights holders to take on these giants with whom we have very good relations today,” recalls Émilie Montané, media director of the FFT. We were also among the first to work with companies that monitor the Web to check what content was available. “Widespread access to broadband has since popularized illegal streaming, which makes it easy to watch live competitions relatively smoothly, with a lag of just a few seconds with the broadcast.

In France, there are millions of viewers who get their TV for free in this way. According to the Médiamétrie institute, there were 626,000 pirate viewers on average during each day of L1 in 2020, and a day of Top 14 or a F1 Grand Prix can approach 200,000 pirate spectators. “We know that for iconic matches like PSGOM, there are at least as many legal and illegal viewers,” says Julien Taieb, head of legal affairs at the LFP. In a French sport whose economy depends for about 30% on TV rights, the bill is high: at least 80 million euros of annual losses for TV broadcasters according to a “limited” estimate unveiled at the beginning of December by the High Authority for the distribution of works and the protection of rights on the Internet (Hadopi), several hundred million according to the broadcasters. They use this argument to negotiate lower rights: in mid-January, the chairman of the board of the Canal+ group, Maxime Saada, estimated in Le Figaro that French soccer had witnessed an “exponential growth of piracy” since the arrival
of Mediapro.

It’s not just soccer that’s worried. “I come from the world of golf and all the competitions are pirated, especially the Majors or the Ryder Cup. The only advantage over other sports is that we have a little more time to get the pirated content removed,” says Mark Lichtenhein, president of the Sports Rights Owners Coalition (SROC), a European association of rights holders. In 2019, NBA boss Adam Silver was concerned about the chasm between the young audience’s obvious interest in his league and its weak penchant for TV subscription. In the world of boxing, recent fights of Floyd Mayweather or Tyson Fury have been subject to massive piracy.

A breakthrough that the extraordinary context of the last few months has accentuated. “On all types of piracy, we were at the beginning of 2020 on a rather encouraging decline and we lost the effect. Of course, there was no sport during the lockdown but it started again very strong from the summer”, underlines Pauline Blassel, the general secretary of Hadopi, who counted no less than 3.4 million pirates in live streaming last September. Echoing this, Mathieu Moreuil, director of international relations for the British Premier League, noted, over the postponed end of the 2019- 20 season, “an increase of a third in the number of links detected, although we can’t say it’s solely due to the pandemic.” Containment has created a sudden withdrawal, and perhaps a catch-up craving. In recent months, health constraints have deprived many fans (more than 200,000 each week for the Ligue 1 alone) of their weekly pilgrimage to the stands. They have also hindered or prevented the gathering of families, friends or bars to watch sports. In France, the arrival of a new broadcaster has added to the problem. During the lifetime of the Téléfoot channel, one of the main French illegal streaming sites warned on its homepage, with logos of the official broadcasters, that they had the choice between pirating and “spending 89 euros a month to watch all the matches. “It’s quite common to see an increase in piracy as soon as you change broadcasters,” says Pierre Maes, TV rights consultant and author of Le Business des droits TV du foot (FYP, 2019). “For a customer, the price of subscribing to a legal offer must be accessible and the offer must be readable and understandable. In France, neither box is ticked. “Which, like the sometimes chaotic launch of RMC Sport in the fall of 2018, makes the fragmentation of the offer an ideal target, even if the legal director of beIN Sports, Caroline Guenneteau, qualifies: “The essential factor is that piracy is very easy to access: you just have to search on Google to have access to a match in very good quality and with commentary in French. As long as this technical facility is not stopped, piracy will flourish. “A facility that has reached new levels of sophistication with IPTV, a pirate streaming service that allows, via a box or an application and a subscription of a few euros per month, to access several thousand channels and programs in video on demand.

According to an estimate by Hadopi, this technology has at least 1.8 million users in France, with resellers who are multiplying and do not hesitate to offer a real after-sales service: “One month before the arrival of Téléfoot, the guy who provides me with the service had left an announcement on a secure messaging system: ‘Don’t worry, family, you’ll have Téléfoot on day 1′”, recalls Julien, an employee in a large banking group and IPTV subscriber. In recent months, several lawsuits against French resellers have taken place and, at the European level, thousands of hacking servers have been seized. “We are not talking about clever nerds from Seattle, but about criminals who have a strategy, know how to apply it and adapt their offer”, says Sergio Tirrò, responsible for the fight against intellectual property crimes at Europol. An organization that consumers are not necessarily aware of: “What you see in front of you are mostly resellers, who themselves buy access to a service via wholesalers, who themselves buy it via super wholesalers… “, says Frédéric Delacroix, secretary general of the Association de lutte contre la piraterie audiovisuelle (Alpa).

In a recent global study, the video provider Synamedia distinguished, in a maritime metaphor, two types of pirates: the “Internet buccaneers” pirate because they consider that they cannot afford a subscription; the “content plunderers”, because it is possible and practical, and see few moral objections. A distinction that underlines the need to fight on two fronts, prevention and repression: the development of an attractive legal offer and the removal of illegal content from the Internet. On these subjects, Pierre Maes believes that the sports industry was slow to start, like the music majors after the prosperous CD years: “First there is a first phase which is denial, ‘it doesn’t exist’. Then you get caught up in the numbers. “Secretary General of the Association for the Protection of Sports Programs (APPS), which brings together some 15 federations and broadcasters, Arnaud Decker acknowledges that awareness, and then speech, has been gradual: “We had a somewhat ambivalent vision, we said to ourselves that the more we talked about piracy in the public arena, the more likely we were to encourage it. But we said to ourselves that the loss of revenue and subscribers was such that we had to get together and negotiate with the search engines, the hosts and the social networks. “On a day-to-day basis, the fight of the rights holders involves attempts to block illegal content directly, identified thanks to watermarking. A complex procedure, says Caroline Guenneteau, who claims “withdrawal rates of 20 to 30%, most of the time after the matches”. “The whole monitoring chain, from the detection of the brand to the return to the operator to block the stream, must be done on the basis of fifteen or twenty minutes,” explains Jean-Philippe Plantevin, vice-president of Anti-Piracy services at NAGRA.

Referring to a “tension”, several players in the sector emphasize the complex relationship between rights holders and technical intermediaries, particularly Internet access providers. This has pushed the legislator to take up the subject, with, in mind, the systems put in place in Portugal or in England to obtain the blocking of pirate sites in the long term. The measure should have gone through the audiovisual reform drafted by the government in 2019, but the examination of this dense and controversial text has been frozen by the health crisis. In a context made even more pressing by the failure of Mediapro, the LREM majority has therefore integrated the subject into a much tighter bill on the democratization of French sport, which will be examined in the Assembly from March 16. The text provides not only that rights holders can request the blocking of a site that pirates their content, but also that they can obtain from the courts a “dynamic order” allowing, in consultation with the regulator, to block during a whole season the “mirror sites”, the possible clones that pirates could create at another address. “The objective is not to remain static, but to be quick because we are playing a game of cat and mouse,” summarizes the deputy LREM of Alpes-Maritimes Cédric Roussel, one of the co-rapporteurs of the text.

The promoters of this legal framework also insist on the need to make fans aware of the weight of the rights in the economy of sport, both pro and amateur, through the 60 million euros per year paid out under the “Buffet tax”. “Piracy devalues the work of many people. You can say that you don’t care about Cristiano Ronaldo because he is a multimillionaire but there is a huge industry working behind him”, underlines JeanPhilippe Plantevin from NAGRA. “Making people aware of the reality, in the short term, of the economic model would allow sports fans to understand that the act of pirating is perhaps not insignificant for their club”, adds Cédric Roussel, while calling for a reflection of broadcasters on “the cost of subscription and the understanding of offers”.

Abroad, several federations and leagues have set up prevention campaigns. In Italy, at the beginning of last season, an advertising campaign showed a toddler in a deserted stadium, with weeds invading the empty stalls, under the title “Piracy is killing soccer”. A few months later, with Covid, the image has almost become reality. What will happen to the slogan?

© L’Equipe Magazine 2021 – Jean-Marie Pottier