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Are broadcasters missing an open goal? Fans find it easier to watch football for free on streaming sites

There was no room for fairytales in the FA Cup quarter finals this year, as Lincoln City crashed out to Arsenal 5-0 and Millwall, for whom victory may not have been classed as a fairytale due to their "no one likes us, we don't care" attitude, lost 6-0 to Arsenal’s North London rivals Spurs.

According to our analysis of Google search terms used during and in the lead up to the game, an awful lot of people wanted to share the fairytale with Lincoln, but not as many were keen to pay for the privilege.

During the day, searches for ‘arsenal vs lincoln city live stream’ were up 2950% whilst those for ‘arsenal vs lincoln city stream’ were up 2500% – many of those searching may have found their way to BT Sport and watched the match legally, looking into the search terms in more detail shows that perhaps many neutral fans and Lincoln fans who don’t normally need a BT Sport subscription weren’t interested in investing in one for a single match.

Throughout the day searches for illegal streaming sites, ‘ronaldo 7’, ‘cricfree’ and ‘firstrowsports’ all rose and with the searches for ‘ronaldo 7’ the most searched for site, peaking dead on 5.30pm when the game kicked off, implying that viewers weren’t giving themselves much time to prepare.

This match, which was level until Arsenal scored their first goal just before half time, followed an interesting phenomenon that we have seen previously with searches around football matches. This is that interested viewers continue to search for a match while it is in progress, often prompted by an alert on a livescore app or in this case the sustained hope that the match would result in a famous giant-killing.

For those who may wonder whether these searches are definitely tied to this match or just normal for a weekend, we compared the search terms for the Arsenal vs Lincoln match on Saturday, which was only available on BT Sport, with those for Spurs vs Millwall on Sunday, which was shown free to air on BBC One, and there was no corresponding rise for the illegal streaming sites.

All very interesting – but what does this tell us apart from the fact that there is a substantial minority of sports fans who don’t want to pay for sports content? Less than 10 years ago, no one would have been searching for these terms, and not only because with the exception of the BBC iPlayer most of these streaming sites didn’t exist – but because our use of mobile as a search tool has changed the way we search.

We now turn to the super computer in our pocket for all sorts of things, from a last minute search for how to watch a match we’ve been keeping an eye on via a livescore app or to ask some more curious questions such as ‘lincoln city fc wages’ or somewhat cruelly, ‘rhead lincoln city fat’.

With the growth of search terms for both BT Sport and for live streams hitting such high points, I hope that BT Sport was savvy enough to optimise its search ads for both the brand term ‘BT Sport app’, which appear to have an always on app install ad, but also for the generic terms ‘arsenal vs lincoln city live stream’ and ‘arsenal vs lincoln city stream’. These terms both peaked at a scale far above the searches for illegal streams, suggesting that a large minority of those searching for a stream and finding a BT Sport ad would have been in the market to sign up.

In fact BT Sport, Sky and the Premier League may have more success in stopping illegal streaming by investing in well targeted search advertising, rather than resorting to court action, as the Premier League did last week in order to target the growing proliferation of viewers using Kodi boxes to illegally stream Premier League games. Kodi boxes which can be used legally to build an entertainment hub can also be misused to allow illegal streaming and apparently 11% of those who admit to streaming do so using such a box.

Now that these streamers can have the computer servers they use to power the streams blocked, perhaps a proactive push from Sky and BT Sport using some savvy tactics such as using data to improve real-time visibility and messaging before and during the moments these potential streamers are more likely to search and convert. These could be search ads that highlight surprising line-ups, goals, cards, penalties, injuries, comebacks, and other exciting events.

And for those still wondering what Lincoln City players earn, the most recent data from 2013 quotes a wage of £384, which comes to just under £20,000 a year; quite the contrast with Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil’s weekly wage of £140,000 or over £7 million a year.

Tom Smith is head of biddable media at mporium

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