By Michael O’Dea

As an increasing number of millennials are opting to #CutTheCord, few are feeling that cut more deeply than major sports leagues and the cable providers that broadcast them. What started as an unreliable source, both in quality and availability, has become many sports fans’ first choice for tuning in to their team. A decade ago a savvy internet user looking to avail themselves of a free streaming service would be lucky to find a pixilated, buffering Champions League soccer game at 1:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. Now a simple Reddit search for a Sunday Night Football game yields 22 host sites, one of which had 28 distinct streaming links. That means that any given Sunday night there are dozens if not hundreds of free, albeit illegal, options for those with a moderate understanding of the internet and a powerful antivirus software.

Data protection company, MUSO, reports that internet users made 362.7 million visits to illegal sports streaming website in the month of January alone. Funded by sketchy, low price pop-up ads, some of these more prolific streaming sites can turn a respectable profit. Given the cyclical nature of the major professional sports’ seasons – presumably in place to maximize each league’s respective ratings – streaming sites are always in demand. Yahoo Sports estimates that 6.5% of households in America with internet access have accessed illegal television streaming services. While that number alone is not jaw dropping the statistics suggest that the prevalence is only going to increase. A 2017 SMG Insight survey revealed that 54% of 18 through 24 year-olds have illegally streamed live sports and 33% claimed to watch them regularly. It is clear that younger people are the key proponents of illegal streaming, especially in light of the fact that in the above-mentioned survey, only 4% of people over the age of 35 claimed to use such services.

This trend is having a serious impact on America’s major sports leagues. Commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver said, “From 2010-2018, among 18-34 year-olds… viewership on pay TV is down almost 50%.” Ovum, a London based consulting firm, estimates that illegal sports piracy accounts for 16% of all digital and video earnings or approximately $37 billion. Because of the complexity of these piracy systems as well as the sheer volume of illegal streaming options it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what percent of sports fans are electing to skip the cable and stream instead. The sports that are taking the largest and most easily measured hit, are the ones that survive solely on pay-per-view events. Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing are easy targets for internet pirates because of the nature of their one night only events. Viewers of these events must make the decision to either purchase the event through a pay-per-view provider or go on Reddit and test out a couple of streams until they find passible one. While they may not get to watch the fight in high definition and they may have to stay off of twitter due to the lag time, many find this a small price to pay compared to the $50 price tag of many of these events.

In 2017 the English Premier League attempted to take action against illegal streaming services. England’s most popular soccer league was granted a court order that allowed them more restrictive power to block streams on Kodi, a free, open-source streaming software. This essentially allowed the league to block illegal streams at a server level instead of being forced to block each and every linked video. While this may sound like a win for the EPL it has done virtually nothing to curb the vast network of illegal streaming services nor has it hampered the ambition of these internet pirates.

There is a lot of money to be made. As America’s most popular sports leagues, the NFL and NBA will make a combined $40 billion in TV revenue alone over the next four years. Using Ovum’s estimation of 16%, that leaves approximately $6.4 billion up for grabs for the pirates to claim. The statistics show that an increasing number of young people are turning to internet streaming services over tradition cable options. As this generation slowly begins to represent the majority of American households it will be interesting to see how the leagues adapt.


Student Bio:Michael O’Dea is a 2L at Suffolk University Law School. He is currently a staff member of The Journal of High Technology and is the President of the Intellectual Property Law Student Association.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.


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