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Inside the World of Pirated Streams, And What It Takes to Stop Them

Don’t want to pay for sports content? Free, illegal streams are one click away. Now the sports world is grappling with how to stop them.

Robert Silverman

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Photo Credit: Front Office Sports

On Tuesday night, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki suited up for the final home games of their illustrious careers. For a subsection of National Basketball Association fans living beyond the reach of local cable broadcasts or unwilling to shell out $249.99 for a yearly subscription to NBA League Pass ($39.99 monthly), that didn’t necessarily mean they missed out on two tear-strewn final acts. Not as long as they were willing to bend U.S. copyright law, that is.

All it took was a quick hop over to Reddit, specifically the r/nbastreams subreddit, and they’d find a treasure trove of swiped NBA content, all accessible free of charge. There, the subreddit’s 474,000-odd subscribers share and can access links to pirated hi- and standard-def live streams, plus helpful tips about which streams were buggy or tended to crash at the least opportune moments.  

To wit: Around 6:30 pm on Tuesday, a thread was posted with links to the Fox Sports Southwest, Fox Sports Arizona and NBA League Pass broadcasts of the Mavs-Suns tilt. A few minutes later, a similar thread went up for the game between the Heat and Sixers. Naturally, by the time the final buzzer had sounded, all of those links had been removed. Then the thread was deleted entirely, because why keep evidence of a crime lying around?

READ MORE: Budweiser Says Goodbye to Wade With New Sports Strategy

This is far from an NBA-centric problem. Pick a sport—any sport—and it’s all too easy to locate pirated broadcasts , most of which are hosted on sites abroad and are infinitely superior in quality to the janky popup-ad, malware-infused streams that were the norm as recently as a decade ago.

Reached by phone, Peter Cossack, the vice president of digital security for Irdeto, a leading online security company, said the streams have improved to such a degree that a “casual pirate” — as Cossack described someone who does not regularly consume illegal content — may not be aware that he or she is receiving stolen goods. Nowadays, “It’s very hard to tell between a legitimate and illegitimate site,” he said.

(The NBA, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer did not respond to a request for comment. The National Hockey League declined to respond to specific questions, but in a statement, a representative said: “The NHL actively enforces [sic] against illegal live streams of its games, including cooperating with law enforcement in pursuing criminal charges where appropriate.”)

To hear the leagues and online security professionals describe it, the piracy business is booming. It’s a “growing problem,” and also a “global” one, with illegal sites scattered across the world, per a letter sent in February to the U.S. Trade Representative by The Sports Coalition, a lobbying group which advocates on behalf of every major men’s pro league and the NCAA. (The Sports Coalition has described piracy as a “growing problem” going back to the first year of its existence in 2007.)

According to data provided to Front Office Sports by Irdeto, the number of “aggregated visits” to illegally-streamed broadcasts grew from 143 million to over 245 million from May 2016 to May 2017—a 71 percent increase. Beyond run-of-the-mill regular season games and the YouTube videos detailing exactly how to go about stealing NFL content, extralegal streams sprout like dandelions around a high-profile sporting event or Pay-per-view boxing match on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

(YouTube and Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Via email, a representative from Facebook asked Front Office Sports to provide examples of allegedly pirated content.

Within seconds, Front Office Sports found and shared two Facebook Live broadcasts of a Miami Marlins-Cincinnati Reds game, both of which included links to separate offshore streaming sites:

https://www.facebook.com/indriana.pustika.9/videos/105610210633677/

https://www.facebook.com/409714723149892/videos/1063746017141894/

In response, Facebook said: “we don’t have anyone available for an interview.” In a statement, the site said it spent “significant resources” preventing piracy. “Video publishers and media companies can provide reference streams of their live content in real time in Rights Manager, and if a match is found, immediate action is taken based on a rule set by the rights holder – for example, to block that stream,” the statement read.”By late Tuesday evening, the pages had either been removed by Facebook or deleted by their creator.)

The motivation for digital pirates is self-evident: money. One enterprising Toronto Raptors fan living in Egypt who went by the Reddit handle “velocityraps” claimed he earned between $15,000 and $20,000 per year via donations in exchange for posting the entire 2016-17 NBA season and the playoffs free of charge. Nor did he seem particularly worried about running into trouble with law enforcement. “It’s illegal, but who cares,” he told The Outline. “If they want to stop me, they have [sic] long way to go to catch me.”

After the article was published, velocityraps went dark and his account has since been suspended. In one of his final missives on Reddit, he shouted at the journalist who authored the piece: “FUCK YOU OWEN PHILLIPS.” [All-caps, his]

Shutting down one stream or even vast swathes of streams apparently hasn’t made much of a dent, either. As Yahoo Sports recently reported, those posting and profiting from illegal streams are far more nimble than the rights holders and the entities charged with enforcing the law:

[T]he pirates, in many cases, stay a step ahead. They ready backup. The actual humans cover their tracks. Takedown notices sent by leagues are ignored. Server blocking only works country-by-country, where laws permit, and domain-blocking sounds dandy until the criminals flip from “.com” to “.us” or “.live” and continue to operate. In 2012, the U.S. government seized 16 domain names as part of a piracy crackdown. Four of the 16 belonged to First Row Sports. But a day later, the self-proclaimed “heavyweight champion” of streaming reappeared at a new domain, and continues to live there today.

So if digital sports piracy is both rampant and seemingly unstoppable, how much financial harm is being incurred? That’s a far more difficult figure to nail down. Via Yahoo, some estimates have reached eleven digits:

London-based consultancy Ovum pegs it at 16 percent – $37.4 billion – of all digital TV and video earnings. Ontario-based Sandvine estimated a North American content provider shortfall of $4.2 billion in 2017. The most infamous case study might be the politically charged battle between sprawling pirate operation BeoutQ and Qatari-owned BeIN Sports, which claims the Saudi-based bootleg service has cost it more than $1 billion.

The only way to arrive at billion-dollar losses, though, is by concluding that anyone—from the leagues and the broadcasters to the online Pinkertons—is capable of accurately analyzing the granular functioning of a black market.

Assumptions necessarily abound in those calculations, and those assumptions are tilted in the rights holders’ favor, according to Rick Sanders, an attorney who specializes in copyright, trademark, and related litigation. Reached by phone, Sanders said that the staggering totals should be met with a raised eyebrow. Not only do those crunching the numbers fail to unpack their methodology, they further presume that anyone and everyone who watches a pirated stream would pay the full freight were illegal streams somehow eradicated from existence.

“That just isn’t common sense,” he said. Their work is not necessarily false or even wrong, to be clear, and there’s zero doubt the interested parties (rightly) believe piracy reduces profit. Rather, rights holders—all of whom very much want government entities and social media sites to assist in guarding the value of their product—have a clear motivation to describe “the worst-case scenario and then treat it as if it’s the most probable case,” said Sanders. “So I’d be skeptical.”

While HBO and Showtime have both gotten litigious and put in the work to tamp down on the proliferation of illegal streams, as have the leagues, Mark Taffet, the former HBO executive who helped create the cable company’s pay-per-view model, seemed to back up Sanders’ skepticism. In an interview with Yahoo in 2017, he said the proliferation of illegally streamed broadcasts of the 2017 Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor bout—239 streams, per data collected by Irdeto, which attracted ”approximately 2,930,598” sets of eyeballs—would not dramatically impact HBO’s bottom line. Instead, HBO divides potential viewers into two categories: “buyers” and “triers.”

The latter might check out an illegal stream, but they “were never going to buy [the pay-per-view fight], no matter what,” Taffet said. “They’re the triers.” (Taffet did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)

One trend that should cause some concern is the creation of a generation of viewers who expect all pro sports to be available free of charge, Sanders explained. There’s no telling to what degree that expectation is already being set. But as was the case with Napster in the early 2000s, “If I were the rights holders, it’d keep me up a little bit,” he said.

Similarly, Cossack added: “The biggest concern is the amount of piracy and making sure that you’re viewing that as competition to your platform because it is a direct competitor.”

In the United Kingdom, some legislative efforts appear to have stemmed part of the illicit tide. The English Premier League (EPL) announced that a grand total of “nearly 200,000” illegal streams were vaporized during the 2017-18 season alone thanks to a 2017 High Court Order which dragooned telecom companies into working on their behalf to shutter sites engaging in digital piracy. Charges and police raids also followed in its wake.

But Sanders isn’t optimistic about the prospect of similar legislation being passed in the U.S. for two reasons. One, there are vast differences in attitudes towards free expression both on- and offline between America and Europe, and previous attempts to bulk up anti-piracy measures like the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) were strenuously opposed by a coalition of online activists and pretty much every major internet company. Two, to be effective, legislation would have to threaten internet Service Providers (ISPs) directly. That is to say, if piracy transpired on any given system, the ISPs would be held liable for participating in copyright infringement. Again, Sanders has his doubts.

“You couldn’t get this [High Order] in the United States, that’s for sure,” he said.

Coincidentally (or not), the only sport whose subreddit met an untimely end is soccer’s  r/soccerstreams.

The subreddit’s moderators wrote in a now-deleted January post: “I regret to inform you all that a few days ago, the Reddit Admins got in touch with us about an impending ban of this subreddit if changes weren’t made. The only way to save it, from our perspective, was to cease all user related [sic] activity here.” Two spin-off soccer subreddits created by r/soccerstreams were also subsequently banned.

READ MORE: NBA2K League Eyes Growth In Second Season

In other words, Reddit is able to enforce its own copyright policy when it decides to do so—or when a league or broadcaster (or both) insists that their property is being pilfered. Of course, there’s no way to determine who or what entities may have put the screws to Reddit, but finding an illegal soccer stream is a bit harder and those ends were achieved without changing a single comma in the current U.S. statues.

Even if SOPA had passed or a rejiggered version eventually becomes the law of the land, “truly dedicated thieves will always find a way,” said Sanders. Given all the obstacles in place—websites which are hosted abroad; streaming content that often only exists and has value for a few hours; social media companies’ capriciousness when it comes to ridding themselves of bad actors—it’s hard to imagine a truly piracy-free future.

“A law is only as good the ability to enforce it,” Sanders said.

Robert Silverman is a freelance journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Times, ESPN, The Guardian, Deadspin, HuffPost, The Outline and more.

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NBA, Instagram and New Era to Deliver Shoppable Championship Moment

As Instagram expands into e-commerce, it’s teaming up with the NBA and New Era to offer fans the opportunity to buy officially licensed championship gear.

Michael McCarthy

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Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sports fans are most likely to open their wallets and make an impulse purchase after their team wins a championship. As Instagram expands into e-commerce, it’s teaming up with the NBA and New Era to offer either Golden State Warriors or Toronto Raptors fans the opportunity to buy officially licensed championship gear as they’re popping champagne.

Here’s how the digital “tap to shop” promotion will work: The minute the buzzer sounds ending the 2019 NBA Finals, Instagram will instantly offer a $50 cap/t-shirt bundle for the winning team via New Era. The combo will be exclusively available on Instagram for 24 hours after the game’s conclusion. After that, the gear may go on sale at NewEraCap.com.

The 37.7 million followers of Instagram’s NBA account just have to tap on the post for details, then tap again to buy. Instead of being sent elsewhere they can handle the entire purchase within the app.

As the “authentic cap” of the NBA, New Era is currently selling Warriors/Raptors hats emblazoned with the gold “2019 NBA Finals” logo. The NBA, Instagram and Fanatics offered a similar “shoppable moment” after the Warriors won the Western Conference Finals.

“As the Authentic Cap of the NBA, we’re excited to honor the championship team with the official New Era Authentics: Championship Series Cap and Team Celebratory Tee Bundle exclusively available through the NBA’s Instagram,” says John Connors, New Era’s director of basketball. “This partnership gives us an opportunity to reach fans and provide them with product that helps them celebrate their team’s NBA championship.”

Paige Cohen, a spokeswoman for Instagram’s tech communications, notes fans “want to be part of” the winning team’s celebration. “They shop the gear, they get all decked out,” Cohen says. 

Cohen has a point, according to sports retail expert Mike May. Capitalizing on the thrill of victory can create a “financial windfall for those who have the right product at the right time.”

It can even inspire couch potatoes to put down the clicker and play the sport they’re watching on TV.

“When (fans) emotions are high there’s often a disconnect between common sense and spending — and spending just takes over,” says May, who consults for PHIT America. “It’s an interesting day and age that we live in. It gets faster. The immediacy of Instagram just adds to the festivities — and the spending.”

READ MORE: Canadian Craze Carrying NBA Finals Viewership

Instagram and New Era previously partnered with the NFL to offer a digital shopping experience during the 2019 Draft in Nashville.

The ceremonial act of young college football stars putting on the cap of their new NFL teams has become part of the NFL Draft day ritual. A photographer shot photos of the players in their New Era caps. The photos were shared to the NFL’s Instagram account, complete with shopping tags, driving fans to NFLShop.com. The caps sold for $30 to $38.

The NBA can tap into a huge pool of hoops fans on social media. The NBA’s Instagram account boasts the most followers of any pro league account. The account has drawn 11.8 billion views, and 1.3 billion engagements, this season alone. And Instagram’s new role as a digital mall keeps growing.

In March, the social media giant launched a “Checkout on Instagram” button that enables users to shop and buy products without leaving the app. Users enter their name, email, billing information and shipping address.

Over 1 billion people use Instagram every month, according to Hootsuite, with 500 million on the platform every day. Roughly 60% utilize Instagram to discover new products.

READ MORE: NBA and Twitter Team Up to Bring “Virtual Sports Bar” to Life

Sam Farber, the NBA’s vice president of digital media, said the Finals offer the league an opportunity to “test innovative initiatives” during its biggest event of the year.

With the Raptors leading the Warriors 3-2 in the NBA Finals, the series returns to Oakland for Game 6 Thursday night. If the Warriors survive, the Finals moves to Toronto for Game 7 Sunday night.

“We’re excited to partner with both Instagram and New Era to bring exclusive merchandise to fans in a new way.”

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Stanley Pup Correspondent Fetches New Fans for NBC Sports & NHL

According to NBC Sports, the Stanley Pup campaign has had more than 18 million impressions this postseason.

Ian Thomas

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Photo Credit: NHL

The multiple-month grueling road to the Stanley Cup Final annually catches the attention of the sports world. This year, one of the most dogged chroniclers of that journey has helped the league gain even more traction – Sunny, the Stanley Pup correspondent.

The idea for a Stanley Pup correspondent was the brainchild of Matt Ziance, manager of consumer engagement at NBC Sports. After seeing the way that Sunny, a labrador and guide dog in training, had captivated audiences as the official Today Show puppy, the idea of having a dog being a continued part of the network’s coverage of the NHL playoffs was spawned.

“Each year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we’re always searching for new, organic ways to stand out in our overall marketing messaging,” Ziance said. “While looking at successful campaigns across our properties, we saw a strong connection between our fan base and utilizing puppies in our campaigns.”

That led NBC Sports to incorporate the Stanley Pup across its broadcasts and social posts on a weekly basis. Across the playoffs, Sunny traveled more than 10,000 miles across the country while attending games in Boston, Denver, San Jose and St. Louis, as well as appearing at the network’s studios in Stamford, Connecticut – creating unique content while also finalizing his guide dog training by working in high-volume areas and new surroundings.

That content has been a boon for NBC Sports, the NHL and the reach of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. According to NBC Sports, the Stanley Pup campaign has had more than 18 million impressions this postseason across collaborations with The TODAY Show, the NHL, the We Rate Dogs Twitter account and the Guide Dog Foundation – an audience that includes many who are connecting to the Stanley Cup and the NHL in a new way.

Dan Palla, director of consumer engagement marketing at NBC Sports, said the network spends significant time in the build up to the launch of the playoffs each year thinking of “every single way we can make the Stanley Cup Playoffs bigger than it has been before.”

“The tagline we use is ‘there is nothing like playoff hockey’ – there is an inherent truth to that and every hockey fan knows that,” Palla said. “It’s also about growing the game and making the Stanley Cup Playoffs resonate off the ice, and thinking of new ways to draw people into the compelling games and the culture.”

Palla said when he first heard of the idea of bringing Sunny onto the hockey team, he said “it’s hard not to smile when you think of a Stanley Pup correspondent – we knew it was an opportunity to bring hockey to audiences in a different way that felt like a shot worth taking.”

The NBC Sports team worked with the Today Show staff to understand what worked well with Sunny in terms of content, as well as with the Guide Dog Foundation to ensure that the experience would also be beneficial to Sunny’s training.

READ MORE: Like Novak Djokovic’s Outfit? NBCUniversal Wants To Help You Buy It

The ability to capture hockey-related content with Sunny has allowed the two NBCUniversal programs to have cross-company promotion on-air as well as on social media, while also having hockey content reach new audiences. For example, the Stanley Pup correspondent was featured on the popular We Rate Dogs Twitter account, which has more than eight million followers. That also helped spark user-generated content coming from hockey fans and dog lovers alike on how their own ‘Stanley Pups’ were enjoying the playoffs.

Palla said NBC Sports has made it “mission critical” to help raise awareness of the sport and the NHL outside of the traditional ways of marketing hockey, something that he thinks has helped viewership. The NHL 2018-2019 regular season averaged 424,000 viewers across NBC Sports’ TV and digital platforms, up 2% from the previous year.

Both Palla and Ziance said the network has been thrilled with Sunny’s contribution to this year’s playoffs. While Sunny is now leaving the NBCUniversal family to become a full-time guide dog, Ziance said the idea of another future Stanley Pup Correspondent is something the network will consider not only for the 2020 playoffs, but potentially for the regular season as well.

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Twitter Doesn’t Want Sports Rights

Front Office Sports

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*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

You can count out at least one social media company from the TV sports rights game. 

According to Max Mason of The Australian Financial Review, the company is not interested in battling for major sports rights, but wants to partner with rights holders, such as TV broadcasters, to extend their audiences and bring in more money.

Friend, not foe…

While Twitter does have deals to broadcast games on its platform with leagues like the WNBA, NWHL and more, the goal for the platform is not to be a linear TV broadcaster.

“The way that we’re approaching our business and our partnerships in the space is not to compete with rights holders. I don’t want to be a linear television broadcaster.” – Kay Madati, Twitter’s vice-president and global head of content partnerships

Bigger together…

Instead of competing with one another, Madati and Twitter want to serve as a way for traditional linear broadcasters to be able to amplify their content and drive new revenue.

“We’re here to make those events bigger by marrying the conversation that happens on our platform around those things. We’re here to actually come to them and say ‘we can make your event, your investment in this property that much bigger and that much better’.” – Kay Madati

More video is good for Twitter…

According to Mason, video has become the dominant source of revenue for Twitter, comprising 50% of money coming in.

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