Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Rage Against The Stream

There’s a lad I know, him and his group of mates share the log-in details for a streaming service offering flawless HD feeds of all Premier League matches.  One of them pays a PayPal account £4 per month for the privilege.  They’re all under instruction not to share the password with anyone, the logic being that the more people that access it the more likely it is to get shut down.  They know it will eventually though.  Just as they also know as soon as it is another one will pop right up to replace it.

That’s the world we’re living in.  And all it’ll take is for a host to base themselves in Sweden or one of the smaller island nations existing just for the privilege and there’ll end up being no practical way of shutting it down.  If things continue as they have been we’ll see the Pirate Bay of football streaming before too long.  If the history of the internet has taught us anything it’s that long term it will be pretty much impossible to stop the majority of people accessing supposedly copyrighted material.  And if football broadcasting has it’s that no matter how much you show people will watch it. 

The astonishing thing about the streaming debate is how little the powers that be seem to be doing to stop it.  Or perhaps more accurately how little they’re able to do.  On occasion you might see a press release when 30,000 streams get taken down in a year.  They might just be realising that in every stream they shut down there’s untold multitudes still up and at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection.  In this they’re not only fighting against the future, they’re trying to hold back the present.

And that’s watching at home.  In pubs if anything it’s more engrained.  Irrespective of the complex verdict in the Portsmouth landlady trial if you want to watch any match this weekend odds are there’ll be a pub a short distance away showing it.  A couple of years ago my local used to tell you what games they had on with a nod and a wink.  Now they’ll be openly advertised in chalk on the sign outside. 

This, as with everything about modern football that we don’t particularly like, is the Premier League and Sky’s fault.  Thirty years ago they didn’t announce what game would have highlights featured on Match of the Day in the fear that no one would show up.  Now there’s at least four out of ten games shown in full each weekend.  It’s only going one way.

More than anything this is a symptom of a larger malaise.  There’s a generation of fans being lost to watching football live in this country.  The reasons for this are broad and complex but can mostly be attributed to cost.  With tickets so expensive is it really a surprise that the accepted way to follow your team at 3 o’clock on a Saturday is now to watch them via a foreign satellite stream in a pub.

The usual reason given for not allowing 3 o’clock live broadcasts on a Saturday is to protect lower league football, the idea being if fans could chose to watch Premier League games on TV then attendance down the leagues would suffer.  If this was true you would have expected to have seen a large drop in the last few years when streaming became widespread which simply isn’t happening. 

Of course the Germans are much more efficient.  Every match from the top two divisions is broadcast live on TV and at the same time their top division is the best attended in Europe.  What Germany also has a pricing structure and ethos built around attracting young fans to viewing matches live in its stadia.  If there’s no chance of stopping people streaming matches, and in a practical sense there’s not, surely it makes sense to offer the same service but regulated?  It shouldn’t be beyond copying what the Germans are doing to simultaneously bring more young fans through the gates while offering armchair fans the option to watch every Premier League game legally.  It shouldn’t but it probably is.

The unspoken criticism of this will be why with all the thudding near constant availability of modern football is even more needed.  This is a fair point.  But at some point in the last 20 years we crossed that particular Rubicon and kept on going forwards so we might as well keep going till the end now.  Rightly or wrongly a generation of fans (myself included) has grown up in a world where the next big match is a short walk to the pub away.  While protecting the atmosphere of the people lucky enough to be inside the stadium is important this shouldn’t preclude allowing fans to get more of what they’re used to getting.

The suspicion is that the authorities are happy enough to bask in the glow of the latest record breaking TV deal and not worry about what the future holds.  For all the signs of a breaking point being reached they can point to that as evidence of the system working.  In their attempts to deal with the issue of streaming so far they’ve resembled the music and movie industries in the early 00s, struggling to understand the scale of the challenge they faced as their business model eroded beneath them.  There is a chance they could embrace providing a platform to allow fans to watch any game live by 2015 to be included with the next round of TV bidding.  With so much money still being made through TV rights alone (News International paid £30 million to show mobile PL highlights for the next three years compared to a combined £3 billion plus from Sky and BT for TV rights) it’s unlikely that any change will be considered until those figures change considerably.  As football’s fan base ages it’s only a matter of time before they’re forced to act. The suspicion is they’ll have missed an opportunity by the time they do.

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