The true scale of British football’s illegal-streaming problem is far greater than previously estimated, according to new research that raises serious questions about the game’s reliance on media-rights income.

A survey by global research firm YouGov Sport has found that 5.1million adults in England, Scotland and Wales admitted to watching sport via an illegal streaming website, pirated app or modified set-top box in the first six months of 2023.

This compares to estimates of three-to-four million viewers of pirated streams from recent studies commissioned by trade body the Audiovisual Anti-Piracy Alliance and the Intellectual Property Office, a UK government agency.

The YouGov Sport figure does not tell the full story, as it found a further 3.2million adults were either unsure if they had watched an illegal stream or just preferred not to say.

Furthermore, the survey’s sample of 2,041 people did not include anyone under the age of 18.



‘These pirates are becoming smart’: Football’s fight against illegal streaming

Even if the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who are likely to be watching illegal streams are overlooked, the YouGov Sport study suggests more than eight million adults in England, Scotland and Wales are either definitely doing so or are probably engaging in the behaviour — about one in six of the total adult population.

Sports business media firm Unofficial Partner commissioned the research and it features in its five-part podcast series, ‘The Pirates vs the Premier League’. The first two parts were released last week, with the three remaining episodes coming this week.

Asked why they watched stolen intellectual property, the survey’s respondents cited two main reasons: the high cost of doing it legally and the fact that only half the games played are available to watch in the UK, thanks to the Saturday 3pm blackout rule.



Time to end the 3pm Saturday blackout or is it needed to protect the pyramid?

The media rights to live Premier League games are shared between Amazon Prime Video, Sky Sports and TNT Sports in the UK. Subscriptions to all three services would cost fans more than £70 ($89) a month and that would only give them access to 200 of the season’s 380 Premier League games, as the rest of the fixtures are reserved for the traditional Saturday afternoon slot.

British football has banned the broadcast of games between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on Saturdays in order to protect match-day attendances, particularly in the lower leagues.

This position is looking more and more untenable with each passing season, however, as fans realise how easy it is to access overseas broadcasts of these games. Many industry experts believe the game is playing into the hands of illegal streamers, many of whom have links with organised crime, and most fans would prefer not to break the law to watch their teams play. The supposed impact on lower-league gates is almost becoming increasingly questioned.

Unofficial Partner’s Matt Cutler believes the cost-of-living crisis has combined with greater awareness of illegal streaming to create a situation where “the consumption of pirated live sport has become endemic” in the UK.

“Speaking to football fans up and down the country about why they pirate live content, there was a clear consensus: media subscriptions are too expensive, too fragmented, and don’t offer the selection of live games fans want,” said Cutler.

“Unless that changes soon, it has the potential to have a seismic deflationary impact on the revenue sport generates from broadcast rights sales.”

This is a reference to the threats made by broadcasters in recent years that they would no longer bid large sums of money for media rights which simply were not exclusive anymore.

This warning was most memorably made by beIN Sports chief executive Yousef Al-Obaidly at a sports industry conference in 2019. He was speaking at the height of his company’s fight for survival against beoutQ, a Saudi state-backed piracy operation that simply stole beIN’s premium sports and entertainment rights in the Middle East and North Africa. BeoutQ repackaged the rights at a much cheaper rate in an attempt to destroy the Qatari-owned beIN.



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Earlier in 2019, beIN handed back its regional rights to Formula One as it believed the motorsport series had not done enough to support its fight against piracy.

The Premier League, however, is one of the most active rights holders in global sport when it comes to anti-piracy efforts, and it has taken legal action against numerous individuals for stealing its content or facilitating that theft.

Earlier this year, West Mercia Police knocked on the doors of more than 1,000 individuals to warn them to stop streaming illegally. In a separate case in May, five individuals were sentenced at Derby Crown Court to a total of more than 30 years in prison for their part in a piracy scheme that earned them more than £7million ($8.9million).

But the YouGov Sport numbers suggest there is a hint of King Canute trying to hold back the tide about these efforts. There is a growing number of people, inside and outside the game, who worry football is approaching the same existential threat the music business faced in 1999 with the rise of Napster, the file-sharing application that almost killed an industry.

The music business eventually pivoted away from CD sales to legal streaming, which effectively eradicated the piracy problem but slashed revenues in the short-term and led to dramatic changes in how talent is nurtured and rewarded.

(Photo: Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)