On Monday September 2 2014, a war was declared. Plain-clothed officers from Greater Manchester Police and members of a specialist unit from the City of London Police force, the PIPCU, raided a house in Cheetham Hill, Manchester and arrested a 27-year-old man.
In the house they found 12 servers, PC's, monitors and a spaghetti junction of wires all being used to allegedly beam thousands of illegal sporting streams around the world. The operation, according to the officers involved, was on an 'industrial scale'.
“Today’s operation sends out a strong message that we are homing in on those who knowingly commit or facilitate online copyright infringement," said DCI Danny Medlycott after the raid.
“Not only is there a significant loss to industry with this particular operation but it is also unfair that millions of people work hard to be able to afford to pay for their subscription-only TV services when others cheat the system.”
On January 1 this year the Premier League won another skirmish, this time against Wiziwig - another popular hub for illegal TV streams online - who were forced to relent after law changes to copyrighted material in Spain left them with the option of paying a €600,000 fine or shutting their whole operation down. They chose the latter.
However the authorities are playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole when it comes to stopping the illegal online video streams of exclusive sporting content; whenever one is taken down, another one pops up soon enough. The demand is just too high for them not to and, in the digital age, this is now the battleground for the Premier League.
Cold hard cash
Thousands of users either unable, or unwilling, to fork over their cash to BT Sport or Sky Sports in order to watch live sport, are turning to a shadowy underworld in order to get their fix. And the underworld is responding to the demand.
Such is the nature of an illicit trade that exact figures aren't readily available but the issue of streaming is certainly big enough to warrant the attention of the Premier League who are fighting to protect their product having raked in over £3 billion from Sky and BT for the exclusive rights to games from 2013 to 2016. It is claimed that the cost of illegal streaming to the Premier League is £10 million per-year but the figure could be much higher than that.
The bidding war will start again next year and even more money will be pumped into the game, with Virgin said to be willing to throw their hat into the ring. Inevitably subscription prices will rise to accommodate the deal and the land for illegal stream will become ever more fertile.
Crossing the streams
During the 2013/14 season 45,000 illegal streams of Premier League games were shut down by a company contracted by the league to help hunt down those hosting streams - but that's only likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The Telegraph claimed in an article last year that streams of major events can attract as many as 150,000 viewers. The average audience for a Premier League game shown on Sky is 1.2 million.
"Not only is there a significant loss to industry with this particular operation but it is also unfair that millions of people work hard to be able to afford to pay for their subscription-only TV services when others cheat the system" - DCI Danny Medlycott, PIPCU
Football, rugby, tennis, cricket, motorsport and anything from across the pond are available to watch for those who know the right places to look with just a few clicks - but it's not just in the dark corners of the web that the Premier League and other sporting bodies are facing a fight.
Portsmouth Landlady Karen Murphy's landmark victory, or at least partial victory, in the European High Court in 2012 which ruled that football itself couldn't be viewed as an intellectual property - although the Premier League logo and associated branding could - has opened the floodgates for similar establishments to follow suit and show games without the hefty subscriptions.
Throw into the mix the increasing use of videos in the form of Vines being shared within minutes of a goal being scored on social media and it all adds up to the Premier League fighting to keep the integrity of their core product in tact.
Perhaps their greatest problem lies in the fact that they are so tightly tied into their television broadcasting deal which limits their ability to exploit the obvious demand for online content - a boat which other sports, such as the NFL, haven't missed.
Sky Sports do of course offer the chance to stream their live games via their NowTV service, but to watch every live game shown by Sky will cost a viewer just shy of £600-per-year. Simply put, it's not a realistic alternative to being tied into a costly long-term TV subscription.
Having fuelled the football boom in the Premier League era, Sky Sports either can't or won't sell their content for any cheaper and now there's no turning back. The modern game is entirely dependent on broadcast cash, and with austerity the buzzword of David Cameron's Britain there's an increasing gap between how much consumers are willing to pay and how much is being charged; and that's the grey area where illegal streaming can find a home.
Streaming is also flourishing while the Premier League flounders in another area too; the 3pm kick-off. Introduced in the 1960's upon the advent of television's ascent to the mainstream, the archaic ruling means that no live football game can be shown on air between 2.45pm and 5.15pm. So while Twitter and Facebook are buzzing with users during games, there's silence on televisions, bar a few old pro's bawling at microphones on Soccer Saturday.
Digital era battleground
That's in stark contrast to the Bundesliga where 3pm games are available to watch on television. The Premier League maintains that the rule is in place to protect attendances from falling; however that doesn't seem to be an issue in Germany where Borussia Dortmund have the highest average attendance in Europe. According to a study of fixtures from the 2013/14 season, in the top ten of highest average attendances there are six clubs from the Bundesliga too.
"It is only through legitimate investment in our broadcasting rights that we can put on a world renowned football competition, and support and invest in the entire English football pyramid and beyond" - Premier League statement
So far the league has fought a futile battle to ward off the growing demand from the internet and ensure that television remains king. Sites such as 101GreatGoals have felt the full weight of the law while those posting Vines filmed directly from television sets have been suspended too. However it doesn't take long for their replacements to pop up - and they remain as popular as ever.
Despite the fact that intellectual copyright fraud is a crime the onus remains solely on the Premier League to address the issue and it is clear that they are fighting an uphill battle.
Premier League fightback
A Premier League spokesman told GiveMeSport: "It is only through legitimate investment in our broadcasting rights that we can put on a world renowned football competition, and support and invest in the entire English football pyramid and beyond.
"This model is threatened by piracy, whether in the form of illegal internet streams showing Premier League football, or unauthorised broadcasts of our matches in UK pubs. We do a huge amount of work to combat that threat, including through partnerships with Net Result, Irdeto and ID Inquiries.
"Our enforcement programme will continue this season, combined with an information campaign to make people aware of the damage done by piracy, and engagement with policy makers in the UK and EU on the challenges that we and other creative industries face in this area."
It seems as though help is at hand too. The PIPCU is a specialist arm of the City of London Police with the task of investigating intellectual property copyright infringement. Costing the taxpayer £1.2 million-per-year, the department was set up to crack down on online crimes, and have had success with finding those responsible.
They've helped remove sites such as thesportstorrentnetwork.co.uk and Cricfree.tv from the web, and after the raid in Manchester the tide could well be turning. An added bonus for the Premier League is that funding for the PIPCU was meant to only last two years from 2013, however they've recently announced that the unit will continue to operate until 2017.
Figures in the shadows
But who are these shadowy figures willing to fall foul of the law in order to help others view sports for free? Increasingly it's not streams coming from overseas being beamed into the UK but chancers within the country. Streaming a game isn't too technically demanding either; all you need is a satellite box, a PC, and server space.
"At first it started off as a hobby so my mates could watch the football," Craig - not his real name - who used to operate a streaming website, told GiveMeSport. "I then had about 3-400 people signed up and was making a decent amount of money - not life changing but a fair bit to help me through studying."
"However when I started to see news about people getting raided in trouble with FACT (The Federation Against Copyright Theft) I decided that it was not worth the risk and decided to spend more time towards my education."
"The Premier League needs to come up with a solution in the UK to offer games over the internet as there is a big demand for it but they're scared attendances will drop. But if you look at the likes of Germany this is not true" - "Craig", online streamer
Meanwhile Zain Parvez, the man held in connection with the raid in Cheetham Hill, was was charged with an offence under the Copyright Design and Patents Act 1988 over alleged money laundering, conspiracy to defraud and possessing or controlling an article for use in fraud. Since his arrest the charges have been dropped but an investigation remains ongoing.
The reward for those willing to take the risk is sizeable. Some streams carry up to 10 adverts-per-page, some of which are from well-known high street bookmakers and could net the host more than £300-per-stream in revenue as a ballpark figure, which is of course tax-free. The 'Robin Hood' element is also an appealing aspect for net crusaders trying to stop the inexorable rise of the all-powerful media.
Next year the rights over who will broadcast live and exclusive Premier League fixtures will be put up for grabs, and billions of pounds will be thrown about by some of the largest broadcasting corporations in the world. 168 live matches are at stake for the likes of Sky and BT Sports.
For the current deal, the broadcasting heavyweights forked out a combined £3.018 billion, an increase of £1.25 billion - or 77% - on the previous deals. While the next agreement isn't expected to make such a jump up this time it could well come close to the £4 billion mark - and it's that astronomical figure that means the battle over illegal streaming will continue on.
Much like other entertainment industries football - and sport in general - is at a crossroads. The internet has subverted and challenged the status quo in the world of movies and music for years now and that began with underground, illegal sites such as Napster and The Pirate Bay before the industry decided the best way to tackle the problem was not to fight it, but to listen to the demand of its users and offer an equivalent, legal service.
The proliferation of online streams may hint at the fact that football's time has come to listen to the demand of its users and offer an equivalent service which would effectively legalise the world of streaming and offer regulation.
"The Premier League needs to come up with a solution in the UK to offer games over the internet as there is a big demand for it but they're scared attendances will drop. But if you look at the likes of Germany this is not true," Craig explained. "A lot of people are still making lots of money through copyright infringement with these sites."
For now though, come the weekend when the Premier League rolls back into town once more, thousands will flock to the net to get their fix of football. And, as it stands, there's little the league can do.
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