EPL Will Lose Internet Streaming Battle

The improvement in technology for caused the music industry to suffer for not adapting to the digital revolution. Now, after also taking newspapers, film and television in as victims, football is next. In particular, English football. The English Premier League is refusing to adapt to improvements in Broadband speeds and the increasing popularity in internet streaming and peer-to-peer streaming. By doing so, the EPL is fighting a losing battle.
By ignoring the potential of online streaming, the EPL has become vulnerable in terms of his dependence on the television deal it brokered with BSkyB. The Premiership business model, which has raked in billions over the years, has revealed its weaknesses in terms of focussing massively on a domestic market. The EPL therefore sells rights abroad at far lower prices, which makes less sense given the fact that there are a far greater number of viewers abroad than at home.
The price differences have become so vast that fans in the UK have to pay £46 a month to watch only a few games featuring their own sides, while, for example, in China, EPL games are to be broadcast on free-to-air television. The Sky monopoly means fans have to buy the standard Sky package before investing further to view Sky Sports, rather than buying the latter in a stand-alone deal.
In an attempt to stop Sky’s monopoly, the EU ruled that one company can only own 5 of the 6 packages on offer, meaning ESPN have bought the remaining two from Setanta. Their business plan seems to complement BSkyB, instead of competing with them as Setanta and ITV Digital failed to do, with Sky suscribers offered the new channels for £9 a month and others for £12 a month. This means for UK fans to legally watch as much EPL football as they can, it could cost up to £55 a month.
Excluded in this UK price are all the Saturday 3pm kick-offs, in a blackout which the EPL insist protect lower-league attendances. This logic is ridiculous given that the majority of matches in the television deal feature the bigger, more popular sides, whose attendances are generally to capacity (bar Chelsea, though that is another story). There are few lower league matches shown on Sky in general.
There is proof in the Bundesliga model that having the 3pm games available to air does not affect attendances though Germany does have the lowest ticket prices and the highest attendances in Europe, while some of the matches are also free-to-air, including Bundesliga 2 matches (unlike in England – at least until the BBC won the rights for this year onwards). Yet low ticket prices and free-to-air matches look impossible to achieve in England given the money-driven outlook of Richard Scudamore and co, so lifting this ‘blackout’ any time soon appears highly unlikely, hence increasing the popularity of streaming as ticket prices rise.
Abroad, no such black-out exists and you wonder why many UK fans turn to online streams broadcast from countries such as China, who receive such matches free-to-air. If a free alternative, which provides most of the matches of the club you support, is available and ever-increasing in quality, why would you not choose to pick it? Of course, the practise is illegal, and the EPL have taken steps to closing down such sites.
Rather than targeting individuals, the Premier League goes after the sites themselves. NetResult, the company it contracts to track down and close illegal feeds, estimates an 85% to 90% success rate in shutting them down. NetResult’s chief executive, Christopher Stokes said:
“The Premier League has taken the lead in trying to get to grips with this. There are two ways to deal with it – getting to grips with piracy, but also in making sure that more of your content is available online.”
Such talk must be taken with a pinch of salt given the fact that this initiative is going after websites and not the individuals that broadcast the streams themselves. Any site that is shut down for streaming matches is irrelevant. The harsh fact for the EPL is that thousands of streams pop up in a matter of seconds after one stream is shut down. The current method used by the EPL means they are fighting a losing battle. A Premier League spokesman said:
“Good quality content is in the interests of everybody – fans, broadcasters, ISPs as well as the technology companies which sell equipment. So, like all content providers, we are keen that both the legislators and the regulators recognise that there has to be a fair market that serves the fan whilst keeping standards high.”
Such a fair market has to surely include a reasonably priced internet streaming option, regulated by the EPL? Well, the issue with the Premier League is that ownership of the footage reverts to the participating clubs 24 hours after the event. EPL clubs have subscription-based online TV services to exploit this content, with some having their own nationally-available TV stations (Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea).
The current structure of the PL broadcast contracts in the UK and internationally means that a PL website with significant streaming services is a non-starter. With a new deal also in the offing, following the highly successful online streaming method of the NFL looks unlikely. Therefore Sky and the EPL are unable to exploit the massive potential in global online revenues, which are worth far more than the domestic market upon which extortionate prices are forced.
As for including ISPs in this attempt to stop piracy of their product, this also a difficult avenue to explore, given that ISPs do not exist to protect the commercial interests of other organisations, but to provide good quality internet access to their paying customers and not to police usage in case a third parties’ overseas commercial rights are being breached, as one commentator put it.
Fans follow teams and not leagues, so why should, for example, Sunderland fans pay over the odds to see only three or so games of their team shown through the entire season? Given the complication over rights ownership, internet streaming is not a viable option at the moment. If the regulations were altered, it is very likely that online streaming would become a massively popular and profitable option (£2 a match seems reasonable on a pay-per-view basis on a lower quality platform than television, though ticket prices for matches would have to be lowered to prevent falling attendances), with fans able to view their sides’ matches for a reasonable fee on decent, secure quality.
If not for this option, a multi-screen option would also be popular, as Sky do on Champions League nights. Yet once again, this is very unlikely, given the parameters of the current and any future broadcast deals with Sky and ESPN. One can even see, a few years from now, a desperate EPL flogging rights to a company similar to the music equivalent of Spotify (who stream free music interspersed with advertisements, or offer a premium version with no advertisements).
All football fans appreciate how the money has helped improve the English game into arguably the best league in the world (though La Liga 2009/10 edition will have something to say about that), but now it seems that exploitive prices are turning more to illegal streams.
For example, Dutch viewers have every EPL match, fed by Sky, for a measly price of £5 a week, in comparison to the massive prices we in the UK pay for only a sliver of the choice they receive. And now, La Liga will attempt to compete with the EPL for the Asian market by broadcasting at earlier hours (Saturday afternoons) under the advice of Real Madrid supremo Florentino Perez, so any advantage the EPL has must be used if it is to maintain its status as the ‘best league in the world’.
The EPL have the product and the means to do so. Currently, they are undervaluing the rightsto matches abroad and overvaluing them domestically, while completely ignoring the potential of the internet. One thing is for sure though: if the EPL continue to battle online streaming instead of embracing it, their model for success will go the same way as the music industry.

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