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How ads fund football piracy – and how to counter it

As the game's economy falls apart, streaming piracy adds a new threat to football clubs.

Widespread football piracy threatens the business of football – the role of advertisers in fuelling piracy has gone unexamined. The Drum looks at how football piracy is kept alive, and what can be done to tame it.

Football piracy is rife. A third of adult English Premier League (EPL) fans (and two thirds of young ones) say they watch an illegal football stream at least once a month; you'd fill Wembley Stadium (capacity 90,000) around 79 times with the average pirate audience of an EPL game. Meanwhile, some games are being leaked as part of a geopolitical proxy war. And illegal streaming will continue as long as advertisers continue paying for pirate attention.

There are many reasons to watch a pirated football stream. Pay-TV can be expensive, and your club’s fixtures likely splinter across numerous packages. How many of the world’s 3.5 billion football fans can be expected to foot the bill for the best-marketed league in the world? Pirate streamers, after all, offered mobile on-the-go viewing before the broadcasters. And with some pirate streaming options bundled together in the same manner as broadcaster set-box offerings, soccer fans across territories have more choice between providers (which offer different lengths of ad breaks and varying quality of commentary) than they would on the legitimate market.

But the football pyramid in danger of collapse. Fixtures rescheduling prompted by Covid-19 and empty stadiums have poleaxed matchday income. Those who consume the product without contributing may find their team shutting up shop altogether.

But while fans are complicit as viewers, advertisers too – some of whom have broadcast or sponsorship interests in football – must take a closer look at the media they buy.

How does football piracy occur?

Football is desirable to advertisers for the same reason it is to pirates – access to large, dependable human audiences with easy-to-extrapolate interests.

Through legal means, these audiences are pricey. Yet in the programmatic ecosystem, ‘sports’ sites are easily targeted – and many host stolen IP.

Peter Szyszko, founder and chief executive of White Bullet Solutions, a company that detects and monitors the ads funding these steams says the tools exist to stop funding piracy – but perhaps not the motivation.

“The technology is available, we have it, but a lot of ad companies don’t apply it because there’s a cost, and they don’t want to have to go that deep into the process. Frankly, a lot of the time, brands don’t care. ‘Why would we spend money on filtering this stuff when we don’t care about piracy?’”

Contextually, relevant advertisers seek a sports audience. “If you run a sports piracy site, its keywords or algorithm will say that it has live sports content.” And among advertisers, there are few questions about how an audience is assembled. Effectiveness comes at the expense of ethics.

White Bullet’s system takes screenshots of ads running on illegal streams, via its list of pirating domains. But static blocklists can be slow to keep up with the URL variants of popular destinations. The group estimated that branded advertising, including premium household names, made up 96% of all advertising on illegal sports streaming websites.

But as the heat rises, the rules of engagement are changing. Pop-up streams or ‘burners’ are one new way of dodging scrutiny – webpages are created on an event by event basis. Another tactic is ‘cloakers’ – sites that run as low-key niche blogs, that then host illegal streams and pass off the traffic as legitimate visitors for its core interest. These are harder to detect but the huge surges around game-times act as a giveaway.

These tactics make streaming discovery more difficult. But when there’s a will, there’s a way.

Dark social pages, Reddit pages, and closed comms groups are the new pathway of distribution - invisible to the eyes of rights holders. Sometimes there’s an entry fee to these communities.

Dodginess rubs off says Szyszko: “Do you want to be targeting pirates as your audience? If you’re after me and I see your advertising on a dodgy site, I’m not likely to engage because in my heart-of-hearts I know this is a dodgy site. I’d probably engage with the brand on a much safer site.”

If undercutting the value of top football leagues doesn’t turn a glassy eye wet, marketers should consider the brand safety issues.

“First, you’re funding criminals. Then these sites are loaded with ad fraud, click generators, they’re loaded with these little pixels stuffed with dodgy stuff. They will report 10,000 impressions, when in fact there’s only been one. Brands are being defrauded.

“On these sites there’s a lot of high-risk advertising, like pornography, fraudulent click generators and all matters of dodgy stuff. If you’re a big brand, appearing next to that stuff, and on a site that’s illegal and involved in piracy too – that’s a lot of nasty things.”

Anyone who has tried to use these sites can attest to how much engagement is forced with ads. In closing tiny X marks on the screen, you’re dragged to new webpages, hit with notifications and prompts to download dodgy files – all in service of a stuttering low-res feed that will force fresh ad engagement a few minutes later.

For believers in context, Szyszko makes a strong point about putting a luxury watch ad on a bus stop in a well-to-do high street as opposed to a dodgy backstreet billboard next to a known crime hotspot.

Here’s a 2018 video I filmed showing the piracy experience during the last World Cup (for a piece I’m just now getting round to writing).

So, are media buyers deliberately seeking these audiences?

Numerous buyers were reluctant to comment on the subject on the record, as they’d have to acknowledge and tackle the issue if so. But a senior figure at a leading network did offer their opinion.

“In 99% of cases it’s not an active choice for a brand to appear there, it’s down to casting the net wide on a programmatic network and not putting the proper safeguards lists in place.

“Some of these sites are categorised as sports or sports video and given some programmatic campaigns can have 500/600 sites or more, they don’t get picked out.“

And for the remaining 1%, it’s down to a ’clear ploy’ from internet gambling companies acquiring audiences on the cheap, skirting ad restrictions.

The solution

To combat piracy, there needs to be a connected, multi-pronged approach. The leagues and right-holders are now cooperating at least.

And White Bullet’s approach to demonetise continues. Though companies like it develop elaborate approaches, pirates will dodge detection as long as the game remains profitable.

But there’s also the ad-free IPTV model, where consumers pay a subscription for a pirated feed of channels. Szyszko points out that it’s a risky game, and means the subscriber becomes complicit in the theft. A large proportion would rather pay legit sources, were they aware.

GumGum Sports acknowledges that streams will be stolen and is trying to value the additional reach. But it might not be a conversation that stakeholders want to have. Meanwhile, Miller Lite actually embraced pirated streams to grab consumer attention for a recent, knowing campaign.

Drew Barrand, a sports commercial consultant and former marketing director of the English Football League (the three leagues under the EPL) helped set up OTT player iFollow, so fans of 72 teams could buy streams direct from their clubs.

He believes that internet TV has made it easier than ever to deliver streams to fans, and into the hands of pirates. “It opened up the capability for hackers to get in, steal the streams, put it up on it on their own platforms, and drive an audience to it.”

This continues to be a huge issue for broadcasters who pay for exclusive rights. Yousef Al-Obaidly, chief executive of beIN Sports, the Qatar-based broadcaster and Middle East Premier League rightsholder said, as a result of piracy, its rights are “wholly non-exclusive” and that this will be reflected in its next bid.

Barrand says: “There’s a threat to the audience levels that they can monetize. It is less of an issue with amateur hacks, who are generating audiences of between 10 and 100 people. It’s all about context and volume. You can never stop piracy but you can clamp down on those who are truly eroding your audience.

“If you’re the Premier League and you're broadcasting to millions of people and the percentage of people who are watching it on a stream is 3%, that’s probably just par for the course. But if it reaches 20% then you have got a big problem.”

For brands that have a presence in the sport, they’d best pay heed to their role in feeding or supporting the piracy ecosystem. State-backed piracy of Premier League matches was one of the speculated frictions stopping a Saudi group buying Newcastle United, for example. It may have carried more weight at the negotiating table than alleged human rights abuses.

He issues a further warning to brands: “If you’re advertising in piracy, you have no idea how your brand is being used, and to what purpose. It could sit next to unsavory content too. If you’re a proper brand and are looking at protecting your reputation and purpose then obviously it’s a very dangerous tactic.”

And then there’s the pandemic. With fandoms closed off from the arenas of play, clubs are having to deliver streams to fans for that season ticket fee. As the only avenue to engage fans, clubs must master the D2C, learn from the broadcasters and in conclusion stop pirates from demonetizing these efforts.

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