The Mayweather-McGregor fight was one of the most pirated events ever, but it’s just one foul of many in the growing problem of sports piracy.
Authorities were preparing for record-breaking piracy. Exclusive broadcast network Showtime went to court two weeks ago, blocking 40 URLs that advertised streams for the long-anticipated ‘Money Fight’ between veteran undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather and MMA champion Conor McGregor.
And the money fight it was indeed. Tickets for the highly-anticipated fight ranged from $2,500 to $10,000, and even streaming would set you back $95. The fight is expected to bring in a record-breaking 5 million pay-per-views in the US - and it was available to a billion other homes besides, in 200 countries across the world. Yet still, the Mayweather-McGregor fight was predicted to be the most pirated event ever.
Exact scores for piracy of the fight are hard to calculate, but recent estimates have found that of the Mayweather-McGregor fight, pirate streams found by one company on social media, streaming websites and Kodi add-ons reached almost 3 million viewers. Additionally, it has been made clear that at its peak, 50% of IPTV piracy was streaming the fight, and totalled more traffic than Twitch, Facebook and Instagram combined.
Yet networks worked hard to protect their revenue. In addition to Showtime safeguarding against piracy, for the first time miniscule codes appeared watermarked into pirated streams originally broadcast by UK Sky. Whether or not this was a means of marking subscribers who illegally shared the fight remains to be seen, but it could mean that pirates of MayMac will face backlash, and could set a new standard for pay-per-view sports events to come.
Sports is increasingly finding itself a target for piracy: a recent study found that 54 percent of Millennials watch live sports illegally. Unfortunately, the most-followed sports are supported by exclusive deals, sponsors and high viewership. In order to ensure that the industry can continue to enjoy high profits, content rights holders will have to tackle the problem before it reaches a new generation and harmful long-term habits are formed. But why is sports so hit by piracy?
Availability of illegal streams
Facebook, which suffered criticism for availability of Mayweather-Pacquiao streams in 2015, has recently tightened its copyright protection, employing an automatic filter for infringing content similar to Youtube’s Copyright ID system. Twitter’s Periscope, however, has no such protection, so it’s not altogether surprising that Periscope was dubbed ‘the winner’ of pirate streams by Twitter’s former CEO. Periscope assured its Twitter audience that it was working hard to resolve IP infringements, but as streams become more accessible and shareable with tech advances, availability is clearly driving piracy.
Unfortunately, availability of pirated live sports events is particularly difficult to curb. The legal system that facilitates removal of infringing content, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), asks that if content is reported as infringing, the hoster will respond "expeditiously" by removing the material. It's not too clear what time frame "expeditiously" refers to, but all too often hosters will disable access to pirated live sports after the event has finished.
Expensive, inflexible subscriptions
In the UK, one study found that almost a third of viewers would watch MayMac illegally. It seems surprising given that legally watching the fight would cost just £19.95, less than a fifth of the cost of watching the fight in PPV HD in the US. It does, however, require a subscription to Sky, a cost that works out about equal to a Premier League season ticket. Many fans, particularly casual followers of sports, are growing tired of expensive subscription costs and instead are turning to piracy.
Subscriptions rarely offer flexible options, and tend towards one-size-fits-all solutions. Sky has recently repackaged its sports bundles, allowing subscribers to choose a selection of sports to follow, but inevitably the vast majority of content goes unwatched. In addition to set monthly subscriptions, customised subscriptions, pay-per-view or one-off payments could be offered to suit a greater variety of users.
Whilst Sky hosts most sports content in the UK, it occasionally battles it out with BT - like this year which saw BT score an exclusive deal to show the Champions League. This is indicative of a driving factor behind rampant sports piracy, namely exclusivity battles, that all too often frustrate existing customers rather than win new subscriptions. A battle between BT and Sky means that in order to have unlimited access consumers must subscribe to multiple services - or turn to piracy.
The problem is similar to that seen in the music industry, where exclusive releases have time and time again proved themselves to encourage piracy. From Beyoncé’s much-pirated Lemonade to Kanye West complaining that Tidal ruined The Life of Pablo to Jay-Z’s 4:44 that even Snoop Dogg admitted to pirating, consumers are crying out for power.
Unfortunately, despite an interesting recent alliance by media companies against pirates, a complete parley between media giants against pirates doesn’t seem to be in the works. For now, media companies, distributors, rights holders and content creators should instead turn their attention to limiting availability of content online, and providing reasonably-priced options for viewers to watch worldwide, where possible. By educating consumers and sparring with pirates by making it more difficult to access infringing copies of content, habits will surely be changed in a new generation of consumers.