Whenever a big fight night is announced – whether it be a heavyweight boxing bout or an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) grudge match – it doesn’t take long for WhatsApp chats to light up as groups of friends across the globe set plans in motion for watching the action.
Those plans might entail going to a bar screening the fight, emptying pockets to watch the event on pay-per-view, or even buying a ticket to see the bout from up in the clouds at the stadium. Increasingly, though, viewing live sports involves gathering around a laptop – or, more commonly, a television hooked up to another device – and watching it all unfold on an illegal stream.
The fact that fans pirate content is one of the world’s worst kept secrets. Until recently, however, the general perception of an illegal streamer has been of a specky teenage computer scientist working out of their bedroom, chuckling away after breaching whatever security measures a broadcaster might have implemented to protect their content.
But what happens when that isn’t the case? What happens when the scale of a piracy operation is so sophisticated that it can no longer be contained? And what happens when the multibillion dollar rights that have fuelled the growth of sport for so long suddenly plummet in value?
Pirates are quite savvy; they’re well-resourced and well-funded, they’re making significant money from these pirate operations, and sometimes they’re investing in new technologies quicker than the legitimate industry is.
Perhaps it would be best to ask BeIN Sports, the Qatari pay-TV giant that over the past year has been the victim of an unprecedented bootlegging operation spearheaded by BeoutQ, a Saudi-backed piracy channel that has streamed live coverage of everything from all 64 games at the Fifa World Cup, to Formula One and Grand Slam tennis tournaments – without having any rights to do so.
Think of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the mind casts back to June 2017, when a bitter political dispute between the two countries led to a coalition of Qatar’s most powerful neighbours severing diplomatic relations with the tiny gulf nation, resulting in the banning of BeIN’s service in Saudi Arabia. A few months later, BeoutQ was launched simply as a website, accompanied by a huge social media campaign and championed by some prominent Saudi figures. Soon, the network was redistributing BeIN’s Arabic channels as their own, replacing the broadcaster’s on-screen branding with its own logo.
BeoutQ has been illegally broadcasting everything from international soccer, to Formula One and Grand Slam tennis tournaments
In a dispute that reaches far and wide, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Saudis set out to hit their adversaries where it hurts most. Qatar has long used sport to boost its profile – notably, the country will host the Fifa World Cup in 2022, while Qatari entities back some of the largest organisations in world sport. The fact, then, that BeIN owns the rights in various territories to some of the most valuable properties is a source of pride for Qatar, making the channel an obvious target from a Saudi perspective.
“We are the flagship in terms of pay-TV platforms in the region,” begins Tom Keaveny, BeIN’s managing director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). “To contextualise this, we’re not just an operation that goes around buying rights, sticking them up on air, showing them and then leaving them; this isn’t the way the operation works.
“We’ve got the flagship sports rights – whether it’s the Premier League, the Olympics or the Fifa World Cup – so we’re synonymous with the significant events that happen around the world and resonate in this region. That’s why people come after us.”
Since its launch, BeoutQ has ramped up its activities to mimic the operation of a legitimate media business. The network now transmits ten encrypted channels via the Riyadh-based satellite provider Arabsat and is selling set-top boxes (right) across Saudi Arabia and other Arab-speaking countries. A one-year subscription is available for approximately US$100, giving viewers access to almost every premium sport imaginable.
Keaveny says that executives at BeIN regularly monitor screens at their headquarters in Doha, attempting to interrupt BeoutQ as it distributes live footage just moments after it has gone out on BeIN’s channels. So far, despite the company’s vast arsenal of resources, those efforts have proved futile.
Cameron Andrews, BeIN’s senior legal counsel, anti-piracy, adds that Arabsat could simply “flick a switch to stop this if they wanted to”, but the state-backed operator has ignored pleas to cooperate.
In an attempt to pull further wool over the eyes of the public, the Saudis have regularly denied being the brains behind BeoutQ, with the country’s sports minister Turki al-Sheikh even launching an astonishing Twitter attack on Uefa after European soccer’s governing body acknowledged the kingdom’s role in the operation. Two months after that exchange, however, research commissioned by BeIN and carried out by technology specialists Cisco Systems, Nagra and Overon traced the service back to Arabsat, confirming Saudi involvement in the channel.
UEFA was quite surprised by a tweet of @Turki_alalshikh, as the UEFA President has never heard of this person and he therefore would have no reason to meet him.
— UEFA (@UEFA) June 21, 2018
Precisely how much this episode has and continues to cost BeIN is anyone’s guess, but the company is now seeking US$1 billion in damages in an international investment arbitration brought against Saudi Arabia in October. Sophie Jordan, BeIN’s executive director of legal affairs, has claimed the broadcaster is “being used as a political football in a wider regional dispute”, adding that the company has been subjected to baseless competition law proceedings and harassment of employees.
“As you can probably appreciate, it’s had a significant impact on our business,” admits Keaveny. “Saudi Arabia was our biggest market; it’s the market where we’ve had the biggest impact.
“The way that I’d characterise it is as though they’ve almost westernised piracy. This is not just being used as a tool for people to watch things for free and is opportunistic and a little bit mischievous; this is tactical, it’s strategic, and we haven’t got the ability of using basic norms of the rules of law to seek a remedy – a remedy to a wrong that is obvious and pernicious, and is happening on a daily basis.
The way that I’d characterise it is as though they’ve almost westernised piracy. This is not just being used as a tool for people to watch things for free and is opportunistic and a little bit mischievous; this is tactical, it’s strategic, and we haven’t got the ability of using basic norms of the rules of law to seek a remedy.
“It has had some positive impact, as difficult as that is to say. We’re much savvier, we’re more technically aware and we’re more sophisticated in terms of our anti-piracy systems, so probably the amateur thief has been greatly impacted by this. But we’re now seeing that BeoutQ is being pirated, and it’s difficult to articulate this, but it’s like the seven circles of hell – it’s like a divine comedy.”
Indeed, in what is an increasingly bizarre case, BeoutQ has itself now been hacked and pirated by other pirates, largely owing to the easily penetrable encryptions that it uses. In addition, the illegal service has started offering IPTV apps, giving viewers access to Hollywood movies and on-demand content from the likes of the BBC, Sky and Fox.
“It has its roots in politics, there’s no doubt about that,” says David Sugden, BeIN’s director of corporate affairs and communications, “but now it’s morphed into a beast that’s nearly uncontrollable, because the Saudis have created a captive audience in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere where the consumers are getting the content pretty much for free – and it’s the world’s best content. There’s now a baying subscriber base looking for that content to be continued to be provided for free.”
Screens show BeoutQ transmitting BeIN Sports' feed just moments after the Qatari broadcaster
If nothing else, the saga has served as a rude awakening for rights holders and broadcasters alike that might previously have overlooked the evolution of piracy. The fallout in the Middle East is unprecedented in terms of its intricacy and scale, but it is emblematic of a wider issue that threatens the sports industry at its very core. Mark Mulready, vice president of cybersecurity services at software company Irdeto, which monitors and shuts down illegal streaming of live sporting events in real-time, claims that pirates are now one move ahead of those trying to combat them.
“It is becoming more sophisticated,” he warns. “Technical innovations have been deployed by the pirates to try and overcome some of the tools that we use. So yes, pirates are quite savvy; they’re well-resourced and well-funded, they’re making significant money from these pirate operations, and sometimes they’re investing in new technologies quicker than the legitimate industry is. They move very rapidly, they operate across multiple jurisdictions, and to address them you need not only good technology and good tools, but you also need good investigative capabilities.”
This isn’t an issue that you can contain, this has now cascaded, the Pandora’s Box has been opened.
And with the proliferation of over-the-top (OTT) and social media platforms showing no sign of abating, that challenge is only going to grow. Irdeto, for one, detected 5,088 unique illegal streams redistributing matches during the group stages of this year’s Fifa World Cup, with 3,773 of those being housed on social sites such as Facebook, Periscope, YouTube and Twitch. In addition, a 2017 survey of 1,500 so-called millennials, fulfilled by SMG Insight and commissioned by the BT Sport Industry Awards, found that 54 per cent watch pirated streams of live sports.
With the problem accelerating, the question is how do you catch – or, better still, stop – a pirate?
Beyond releasing statements, various rights holders have taken steps in the past few months to do just that. The Premier League and the French Football League (LFP) took a complaint against BeoutQ to the European Commission in August, while Spain’s La Liga is working with Google to block search results that list known pirate websites.
The UFC enlisted the services of VFT Solutions to shut down pirate streams during the recent title fight between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov
Elsewhere, the UFC issued a warning to illegal streamers ahead of the recent bad-tempered title bout between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov – an event that was billed as the ‘biggest fight in UFC history’. On that occasion, the MMA organisation tapped VFT Solutions to identify and record streamers illegally distributing copyrighted content across social media during the live broadcast, as well as sending notifications to viewers watching those feeds in real-time.
For a sport which relies heavily on one-off pay-per-view events, shutting down pirates has become key to protecting its revenue streams.
“We’ve always, in my view, been a leader when it comes to trying to deal with the issue of piracy,” asserts Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s chief operating officer. “First, using a variety of technologies to help us limit the number of streams that are out there of our content. Second, we’ve built deep relationships with those places where most piracy takes place – Facebook being the most significant, but other platforms also.
I think we’re going to be much more selective in the rights that we buy, and we’re certainly going to be looking at our partnerships with rights holders and organisations and seeing who is going to work with us as part of a unified approach to the integrity of these rights.
“The third thing is education. You need to let people know that damages are being incurred as a result of people viewing content illegally. I think there’s a big disconnect there in the sense that many people, if they go and find something on the internet or on Facebook, feel like: ‘Hey, if it’s there, it’s OK to watch it. I’m not hurting anybody.’”
Yet illegal streaming will only continue to harm the industry. Ultimately, those rights holders not putting the necessary measures in place might soon find that the major media partners are less likely to do business with them. In a year when the value of the Premier League’s domestic rights plateaued, it wouldn’t be too surprising to find that trend filtering into sports which don’t invest on protecting their content. Broadcasters pay big bucks for exclusive rights, but once that exclusivity disappears, so too will the eye-watering premiums they are willing to pay.
“Well yeah, I think that’s fair,” says Keaveny, when asked whether BeIN might re-evaluate its rights strategy in light of the BeoutQ scandal. “I think we’re going to be much more selective in the rights that we buy, and we’re certainly going to be looking at our partnerships with rights holders and organisations and seeing who is going to work with us as part of a unified approach to the integrity of these rights. People who are doing less so, we’re going to be doing less work with. That’s not a threat, that’s a commercial reality – who’s going to buy something they can’t utilise?
Keaveny says BeIN could re-evaluate its rights strategy in light of the BeoutQ scandal
“This is a multiplier effect in reverse. This cascades down to grassroots football; this cascades down to the whole development of certain sections of the industry. Companies are getting less money, they invest less, they employ less, so this is something that can really hit Hollywood, it can really hit the major sporting clubs of the world just as they’re trying to grow and develop the game, because we’re not going to be buying things we can’t monetise.”
Keaveny’s sentiments are echoed by Marc Watson, the executive chairman and chief executive of multinational broadcaster Eleven Sports, who is equally concerned by the ongoing spread of piracy.
“I have to say I think it’s an existential threat to the industry,” he says. “I think that if sports rights holders are not prepared to do everything they can to prevent and minimise piracy, then they have to expect that the value of their rights is going to fall and, in the end, it could fall dramatically.
“There are a lot of rights holders out there that talk a good game but actually don’t do anything in reality. In the past they’ve been buffered by broadcasters continuing to pay high sports rights values. In many places you’re starting to see values dip a bit; piracy is one of the contributing factors. And the industry, led by the rights holders who own the rights, really do need to stand up and take a proper and effective stand against piracy. Right now, we really don’t see that happening.”
I think that if sports rights holders are not prepared to do everything they can to prevent and minimise piracy, then they have to expect that the value of their rights is going to fall and, in the end, it could fall dramatically.
Going forward, then, it appears a concerted, multi-stakeholder effort is needed to curtail the scourge of piracy. For too long the argument has centred on who’s responsibility it is, but, as Mulready succinctly puts it, “the time for pointing the finger at each other is over.”
Whether that means getting all the relevant parties to agree on a unified framework, or simply investing more in protective measures, the time has now come for rights holders and broadcasters to work together to preserve both the value of their content and the viability of their businesses.
“This is something where there’s no silver bullet, and this has got to happen at many different stages of the process,” asserts Keaveny. “The rights holders are the ultimate holders of the rights, they absolutely need to protect theirs, just as we’re spending significant money on encryption, detection and beefing up our anti-piracy operation well above and beyond industry norms.
“This isn’t an issue that you can contain, this has now cascaded, the Pandora’s Box has been opened. So we’re desperately trying to work with people, but this is something where we need a coalition of the willing, and it’s these people who are willing to protect their own rights and the rights of intellectual property.
“This isn’t something we need to be doing on our own. I think some organisations have stepped up, been vocal, been vociferous and been incredibly active in this area – other organisations, less so. This is an industry-wide problem; if people think this is something that’s just affected BeIN in Qatar or Saudi Arabia have completely missed the magnitude of this situation.”
You can hear from Cameron Andrews, Senior Legal Counsel, Anti Piracy at BeIN Sports at SportsPro Live 2019 on 30 April -1 May at The O2, London, find out more about the event here.
As the Saudi-backed pirate channel BeoutQ shows illegal streamers are become more sophisticated than ever before, rights holders and broadcasters are coming under increasing pressure to invest in protecting their premium content.