The Premier League is back and it’s an illegal live stream disaster

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As Liverpool and Leeds kick-off at 5.30pm, the champions will be looking to prove that last season wasn’t a one-off. Millions of fans across the world will also be tuning in to figure out the same. And, for the first time ever, the new Premier League season will begin without fans in attendance.
While grounds will be silent, more games than ever before will be broadcast live on TV. Following a last-minute deal between the Premier League, broadcasters and clubs all of the 28 matches being played in September will be shown on either Sky, BT Sport, Amazon or the BBC. The previous plan had 17 matches scheduled for TV, with the remaining 11 being inaccessible (Burnley and Newcastle hadn’t been picked be on TV at all).


For fans, it could prove costly. People may need a grab-bag of digital subscriptions and pay-per-view options to follow their clubs. For those wanting to watch as many games as possible, the cost is likely to be even higher. Only one of the first month’s matches will be shown on free-to-air TV. (Leicester vs Burnley on the BBC on September 20).
The lack of free-to-air games is a sharp contrast to the end of Liverpool’s championship-winning season, when 33 games that were played behind closed doors were broadcast for free.
Empty stadiums and strict social distancing rules in pubs will likely create a piracy boom as fans turn to illegal streams to watch the new season. “I expect when the Premier League returns on Saturday that there will be significant wholesale piracy occurring,” says Mark Mulready, vice president of cyber services at anti-piracy firm Irdeto. The company has worked with the Premier League on its anti-piracy efforts for the last five years. And if the end of last season is anything to go by, the numbers will be big. “We saw about an eighteen-fold increase in traffic to the popular streaming sites in May and June,” Mulready says. From June to July, there was a 50 per cent increase in people looking for sports streaming links.
Stopping illegal live streaming of sports is a difficult battle to win. Those working in the industry compare getting illegal live streams removed to playing whack-a-mole. As soon as you take one site down, pirates get another live. The Premier League has a big role to play in protecting its own intellectual property. During the 2019/20 season 300,000 live streams were blocked or disrupted in the UK alone, the Premier League says.


Independent analysis has found illegal streaming of Premier League games costs clubs £1m per match. Premier League matches are broadcast all around the world with other countries charging vastly cheaper prices for people to tune in. Before the last-minute change this week, 160 of the season’s 380 matches weren’t planned to be televised in the UK. Whereas NBC’s streaming and catchup service in the US will provide access to all 380 matches this season.
International broadcasts of Premier League games can increase the chance of the streams being put online illegally – in April the Premier League said Saudi Arabia was a “centre of piracy” that impacted right holders all around the world.
The Premier League says it has one of the most comprehensive anti-piracy programmes in the world, invests in technology to identify streams and disrupts them in real-time. This includes working with social media companies to make sure live streams don’t appear on their sites.
Streams are removed from the web using legal mechanisms. In 2017 the Premier League obtained an injunction from the high court that compelled internet service provides to block pirate servers. As spotted by TorrentFreak this has been renewed for the 2020/2021 season. This allows detected streaming sites to be blocked in the UK.


A report (PDF) from France’s intellectual property protection body, HADOPI, cites the Premier League’s system as working effectively. It says each week the football body identify servers that broadcast sports content illegally and add them to their injunction. “In practice, the list of servers to be blocked is circulated via a secure platform and is updated at least twice on each match day,” the report says.
And it isn’t just servers that the Premier League is targeting. In March 2019 three men who sold illegal streams to more than 1,000 pubs, clubs and homes were jailed for a combined total of 71 years. The crimes made them £5m.
The Premier League says it will take action against illegal streamers no matter their size. In the last year it has taken legal action against two retailers working on Edgware Road for selling illegal streaming devices. And just last month a man pleaded guilty to copyright and fraud offences and received a 36-week prison sentence, suspended for two years.
Stopping criminals distributing illegal streams is a key way to cut off vast swathes of viewership. “In my view, the only way to stop them is to disrupt the illegal criminal IPTV services and do it day in day out to make the illegal service of the sports rights impossible to consume,” says Simon Brydon, a senior director of sports rights and anti-piracy at video firm Synamedia. “Degrade the service so the only option is to watch it legitimately or don’t watch it.”
But there’s also a big role for technology to play in detecting illegal streaming in real-time. Mulready says Irdeto has a 24-hour threat detection team that gathers intelligence ahead of fixtures being played. “A lot of the links are shared in advance or shortly in advance of the particular game,” he says. The firm uses web crawlers similar to those used by Google to find illegal streaming links online. “For us it’s about arming our crawlers for the particular sites we are going to be crawling to detect the pirate streams.”
Despite the proactive work, it isn’t difficult to find streams online. Each match day people search for illegal streams through social media, forums, subscription services or Kodi boxes. A simple social media search for specific games can bring up links being shared that claim to be showing the matches. On Reddit there are still guides that point people in the direction of streaming sites. This is despite the site banning [link url=“”]a soccer streaming subreddit[/link] and threatening to ban r/piracy last year.
Many streaming sites also come with their own threats. Streams can be laden with intrusive advertising and it isn’t difficult to inadvertently download malware when hunting for illegal streams.
While live sport stopped when the UK went into lockdown on March 23, online piracy for other types of content went up. “There was an immediate spike in piracy the next day, you can see it take place as people stop taking their kids to school,” says Peter Clothier, commercial director at anti-piracy firm MUSO. And with more people looking for pirated content, it became easier to find. “You’ll see during lockdown that links for family content would be shared on Mumsnet,” Clothier explains. MUSO’s statistics show there were 300 million visits to piracy sites in the UK in March alone. Other stats show a similar rise: in May, the UK’s intellectual property service Fact said links to streaming sites had doubled between February and April.
Even though live sport stopped during lockdown, Mulready says pirating of sports didn’t. Pirates turned to historic games. During lockdowns around the world sports governing bodies, including football leagues, released some of their library of old content to allow broadcasters to fill slots in their emptying schedules. “Pirates being pirates, saw that as a good opportunity,” Mulready says. “They also pirated that content and they added them to their live pirate broadcasts or to their video-on-demand offerings.”
At the same time Irdeto saw pirates being more innovative with how they were working – a pause on new TV and films being produced also affected their illegal services. Mulready adds that the company saw pirates be “much more savvy in their marketing”. He says services were contacting customers offering discounts during the height of lockdown in an attempt to reassure them that sport would be illegally streamed soon enough. “They were using encrypted messaging services, WhatsApp, Telegram and the like, to stay in direct contact and explain to the customers ‘We’re going to deal with these issues.’”
With the return of live sport, time is of the essence in the whack-a-mole piracy fight. It’s no good identifying and removing streaming links after a match has finished. “Technology is your best weapon in that very compressed window,” Mulready says. “If you’re viewing an illegal stream and it’s going down and up or it’s poor quality eventually you’re going to get frustrated. These days there are plenty of legitimate, very safe, alternate options.”
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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