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(Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

As video-on-demand streaming services have become more available and ubiquitous in Australia, film and television piracy has steadily decreased. But now, live sports — which television networks often pay extraordinary amounts for — are being pirated in increasingly sophisticated operations.

In the Middle East, a reportedly Saudi Arabian satellite company BeoutQ has been pirating sporting streams from codes around the world, using rights held by Qatar-based beIN. FIFA has previously launched legal action against the group pirating soccer matches, and beIN has this week launched a website it says demonstrates “one of the greatest threats to the future of the sports and entertainment industry”. BeIN says the stolen content is worth billions of dollars, initially only available inside Saudi Arabia but becoming increasingly professional since its launch in 2017.

Western Sydney University Emeritus Professor of cultural research David Rowe said online piracy of sport was becoming a serious issue across the world. “There’s a lot of theft of intellectual property in all kinds of areas — hacking and interfering in elections and stealing technology — and this state-sponsored pirating is a classic case,” he said.

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Rowe said the Saudi example of sophisticated piracy could create a precedent for rogue states with sporting rights into the future, but a bigger threat to the value of sports rights was “good old-fashioned criminality”.

“It’s a move from kids hacking to an actual piracy industry which exists in all media,” Rowe said.

“One of the reasons there hasn’t been a lot of noise so far is the sporting codes didn’t want to advertise the problem, or make it seem significant to the people paying for the sports rights,” he said. 

Over the past few years, platforms have been signing bloated sports broadcast rights deals, as sports and a struggling TV industry have become co-dependent, Rowe says. “Sport administrators have been on an incredible ride in sports rights,” he said. “They’ve been incredibly lucky because sport has been able to capitalise on the crisis in the TV industry … Free-to-air television has needed a reason for being, and it’s needed competitive reality television and sport, and people have needed a reason to pay for subscriptions to Foxtel.”

Victoria University screen media lecturer Marc C-Scott told Crikey that rights holders needed to make sure legal streaming was available to avoid losing viewers to pirate versions before it became a bigger issue.

“At the moment, people are pirating things they don’t otherwise have access to,” he said. “But now we’re moving across to paid streaming options for more sports, it becomes an issue once the rights holders start losing money from it … It’s not a major problem yet, but we need to not do what we did with film, where piracy got to a point where we couldn’t rein it back.”

Rowe said that while making content cheaper and more accessible might help stop some piracy, a more complex plan was needed to help rights holders keep the value of their sports streams. The companies could use personal prosecutions — or the threat of prosecution, as with the man who put the Anthony Mundine and Danny Green fight online using Facebook Live — to discourage individuals from using the intellectual property.

They would also need technological barriers to piracy, he said. “There’s always a dance between rights holders and those who infringe those rights with the technology,” Rowe said. “The rights holders always seem to be one step behind those who are breaking them, but they can do things like have certain website blocked. You need all these things in play at one time.”

Sports rights haven’t really been worth what Australian networks have paid for them in recent years — NRL and cricket had only been marginally profitable for Nine when it still held the rights to both, while tennis and AFL had done a little better for Seven.

Rowe said that even if online piracy of sport increased in Australia, sports rights wouldn’t lose all value. “If you can’t protect your intellectual property, the value of that property is degraded,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it would collapse necessarily. It would only collapse if it became too easy to pirate and there were no other options available. It’s more likely to slow the rise of rights value.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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