UK: Premier League Piracy Predicament Keeps Us ‘Hooked'

Last Updated: 23 August 2019
Article by Matthew Knowles

Premier League football continues to be a desirable product that, over the next three years, will attract roughly £9.35billion in TV broadcast revenue – an advance on the £8billion generated during the previous three-year rights-cycle (2016/17 until 2018/19).

Currently, each Premier League team is guaranteed a minimum £90million in combined broadcast and prize-money revenue (to illustrate the significance, Huddersfield Town earned £93.6million last season despite finishing bottom and being relegated, which is more than Bayern Munich received for winning the German Bundesliga). That said, among several challenges that the Premier League faces in seeking to maintain and (possibly) improve upon these sky-high revenues, broadcast piracy remains arguably its greatest threat.

The Background

Piracy has long been a thorn in the Premier League's side – the most noteworthy example being the Karen Murphy¹ case. Here, the Premier League sued a pub-landlady for buying a Greek TV decoder and decoder card to broadcast live matches in her pub (which meant avoiding paying considerably more for the official UK broadcast package and circumventing the UK's application of the Saturday afternoon blackout rule). The European court ruled that the Premier League could not claim copyright over the matches themselves – but crucially that it did own copyright in the surrounding media (e.g. the anthem and the logo shown in the broadcast). It meant Murphy required the Premier League's consent to show the copyrighted works in order to broadcast the live matches, which the Premier League were unwilling to provide.

Before and since the Karen Murphy case, the Premier League has dedicated significant legal resource to clamping down on piracy and with relative success on the domestic front. Recent measures have included securing blocking injunctions against the UK's main internet service providers – requiring that they take steps to impede customers' access to servers that deliver the illegal live streams – as well as securing blocking orders against the server IP addresses themselves. All of this with good reason; domestic broadcast revenue has grown exponentially in the last decade and, despite a small decrease in the latest rights-cycle, it remains the Premier League's highest source of income.

Overseas Developments

On analysing the split for the latest rights-cycle, we can see the Premier League's domestic TV rights were sold for a reported £5billion, with overseas packages going for £4.35billion. Therefore, this overseas component reflects 46% of the Premier League's total broadcast revenue and means the Premier League earns more from overseas broadcasting than any other sports league in the world. Indeed, the £4.35billion this time is around 35% more than the Premier League received for its overseas packages under the previous rights-cycle. It is no exaggeration to say that the Premier League benefits hugely from its growing popularity on the international stage (Premier League football reaches over 1 billion homes in 188 of the world's 193 countries), which is expected to continue in the coming years. However, one significant obstacle currently stands in the way...

The BeoutQ Problem

One of the Premier League's highest value broadcast packages comes from the Middle East and North African region – with beIN Sports holding the exclusive rights to broadcast all 380 Premier League matches.  However, Saudi-Arabian based entity beoutQ has quickly risen to prominence – stealing and repackaging official broadcasts (mainly those of beIN Sports) and making them available to consumers for free or at a much lesser price. There is a complex political landscape in Saudi Arabia (beIN Sports' Qatari-based ownership is a sticking point in the context of Qatar's own diplomatic crisis with the Saudi government) which has facilitated a relative safe-haven for beoutQ to develop (and even advertise) a sophisticated product. Consequently, beoutQ has been able to grow its consumer-base – even outside of Saudi. Without legal recourse in the region, the Premier League and other major sports bodies have so far been frustrated in their attempts to combat beoutQ's growing reputation.

At the time of writing, beoutQ is apparently unavailable to consumers. However, reports suggest that the network is undergoing a rebrand and upgrading its technology – including taking steps to make the source of its operations harder to trace. If this is the case, the Premier League's problem looks set to intensify. For as long as beoutQ carries on its blatant pirated service and it remains widely available, broadcasters – with their "exclusive" rights compromised – will not be incentivised to offer the Premier League anywhere close to the sums they have paid under the current rights-cycle. BeIN Sports has already acknowledged beoutQ's existence as the reason for them dropping certain sports from their investment portfolio. 

A Wider Significance

It will be interesting to see how and when the beoutQ problem gets resolved, but not simply for the benefit of the Premier League. As beoutQ's popularity increases, so too does its service offering – and so the problem is significant for all rights-holders (sport or otherwise) who will be seeking to maintain and grow their broadcast revenues across international markets.

Stay tuned.

Footnote

¹ Football Association Premier League v QC Leisure and Karen Murphy v. Media Protection Services Limited (2011) – Joined Cases C-403/08 and C-429/08

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