World Cup piracy ‘explodes’ in some Asian markets, subsides in others

Fifa World Cup 2022 match between Japan and Croatia. (Photo by Kaz Photography/Getty Images)

  • Pirate streams of 2022 Fifa World Cup in Asia “exploded” in certain markets
  • Some pay-television broadcasters found it difficult to make a return on the rights
  • Other Asian broadcasters report marked improvement compared to 2018 tournament

Well-placed sources in two major East Asian markets have told SportBusiness Media that pirate signals and streams of Fifa World Cup matches were rampant in their territories, significantly limiting their ability to make a return on the rights.

Both sources, who did not want themselves or their markets to be identified, were in markets where broadcasters were using at least some World Cup content exclusively on pay-television channels or subscription streaming platforms.

The problem of piracy varies across Asian markets, with some sources in other markets reporting a downturn in piracy compared to the last World Cup in 2018.

Fifa, the World Cup’s commercial rights-holder, had extensive measures in place to tackle piracy. These included an anti-piracy team on call for broadcasters 24-7 and online reporting platforms where media rights licensees could notify Fifa’s anti-piracy agencies of infringing content, links or websites on digital and social media. In Asia, Fifa worked with anti-piracy agency Athletia Sports.

The piracy problems around World Cup 2022 took various forms, with the most prevalent and concerning for the broadcasters being illegal live streams. This category could be broken down into at least three sub-categories: streams available via websites, streams available via applications, and streams on legitimate platforms in overseas markets accessed via virtual private networks (VPNs). VPNs allow users to access streams from overseas markets that would otherwise be geoblocked.

Facebook was identified by several Asian broadcasters and industry insiders as a major hub for the sharing of links to illegal streams of World Cup broadcasts, as well as illegal streams of other sports. Private groups on the platform were being used extensively in some markets to share these links and also to share information about decrypting satellite signals.

When contacted by SportBusiness Media about the matter, a spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company Meta said it “takes intellectual property rights seriously and our policies prohibit copyright infringement. We allocate significant resources to proactively combat piracy, especially during global sporting events, such as the Fifa World Cup and we work closely with partners to remove violating content.”

A spokesperson for Fifa told SportBusiness that the organisation “has a well-defined set of policies in place to identify and take down infringing content…Fifa works closely with media rights licensees from an early stage prior to the tournament and is structured in order to provide broadcast partners with a reporting mechanism for pirated content.”

However, they said Fifa wants social media platforms to do more to tackle piracy, as part of wider, cross-industry efforts to tackle an issue it said will remain a “global problem for all rights-holders”:

“Fifa is continuing to work closely with broadcasters and other stakeholders to further strengthen collective anti-piracy efforts…In particular, Fifa believes social media companies must play a much more active role in working with media rights owners to eliminate piracy on their platforms.”

Different experiences

Broadcast sources spoken to by SportBusiness Media reported very different experiences of piracy around this year’s tournament. Some were startled at its growth and concerned about the impact on their business. Others were pleasantly surprised at a decline in piracy compared to 2018.

A source in one of the most affected markets said illegal streaming had “exploded” around this year’s tournament. They said sharing of illegal links on Facebook had reached a scale that was “just unbelievable…Four years ago, for the 2018 World Cup, it wasn’t as rampant, especially on Facebook”.

Fans using VPNs to access free streams of the World Cup from overseas markets was also a big issue, they said. Matches from the World Cup were being streamed on free-to-watch platforms in markets including China, Japan and Korea, which were then accessed via VPNs from other countries.

The source said that the subscription platform on which World Cup rights were being exploited in their market had seen “really, really slow take-up” during the first weeks of the tournament, a critical time for customer acquisition. A couple of early matches had been broadcast for free to whet viewers’ appetite, before the bulk of the group stage fixtures went behind a paywall.

The source acknowledged that some aspects of the piracy were beyond Fifa or anyone else’s control. One factor exacerbating the problem is that the World Cup attracts a lot of casual viewers who are less likely to sign up for paid subscriptions to sports content packages. The source said many of these casual fans were expected to first go online and search for an easily-accessible free stream of the World Cup, and could only be convinced to pay if such a stream was unavailable. The source was concerned that the ease of accessing free, illegal streams at this World Cup would embed the behaviour for future tournaments and other events.

In stark contrast to the above experience, a source in one other major football market in East Asia told SportBusiness that there had been a remarkable downturn in illegal streaming compared to 2018.

“In 2018, we were finding several hundred illegal streams on a daily basis,” the source said. “This time, it is single digits.”

“The business performance in terms of audiences seems to be good too,” they added, speaking towards the end of the group stage of the tournament.

Fifa, Facebook mechanisms

Most broadcast sources spoken to by SportBusiness Media said Fifa and Facebook were responsive and able to shut down pirate World Cup signals when notified using their official mechanisms.

However, sources in the most affected markets were dissatisfied at the level of protection afforded by these mechanisms. The sheer volume of illegal streams has been a challenge, as well as the speed with which new streams emerged after others were shut down.

The burden of monitoring for illegal streams fell on rights-buying broadcasters. This meant hiring staff to monitor local-language websites and social networks for sharing of links to the streams.

One broadcaster in East Asia told SportBusiness Media they had hired dozens of staff to provide round-the-clock monitoring for illegal streams of the World Cup. Another broadcast source wanted Fifa to do more monitoring and policing of pirate streams: “They are supposed to protect us,” they said.

However, other broadcaster sources are content with monitoring and reporting links themselves. They said it is more efficient for the local rights-buyer, with local language and market knowledge, to do so.

“We’re happy with that responsibility,” one source said.

Another industry source said some of Fifa’s broadcast partners had not used the rights-holder’s protocols for reporting piracy, which meant the system had not worked as well as it could have. For example, some broadcasters are thought to have appealed directly to Facebook to remove certain links to illegal streams, rather than going via the Fifa mechanism.

The Fifa spokesperson told SportBusiness that its reporting mechanism “helps…anti-piracy service providers to identify and take appropriate and direct action against illegal streams, ensure a consistent and effective anti-piracy program globally, and is critical in order to avoid the duplication between Fifa and rights-holders.”

When it came to pirate content being posted on Facebook, Athletia relied on action by the social media platform to take it down.

Facebook owner Meta has a range of procedures and measures to address the posting of illegal streams on its platforms, and other copyright violations. These include: ‘Rights Manager’, which uses video, image and audio ‘matching technology’ to find content that has been uploaded without the proper permissions; online reporting tools, such as this, allowing copyright owners to flag posts that breach their copyright; and what the company describes as ‘proactive enforcement’ work, where it seeks out and takes down copyright-infringing content without prompting. In 2022, the company reports that it has been taking down between 2m and 5m pieces of copyright-infringing content every month, globally.

Satellite leakage

Satellite overspill was another source of piracy that affected some World Cup broadcasters in Asia. Some weakly-encrypted satellite broadcasts were accessible outside the markets they were supposed to be confined to. However, this appears to have been a less critical issue than illegal streaming, and one that Fifa managed to largely get on top of. Some early issues in Thailand were at least partially addressed by changing the satellite band to one that was more tightly focused over the country.

There is also understood to have been some leakage early in the tournament from satellite broadcasts in Bangladesh and Malaysia.

One sports media industry source said there had been a “significant reduction” in the overspill of unencrypted satellite broadcasts in Asia for the 2022 World Cup. Reported instances of this issue are thought to have been at around half the level reported for the 2018 World Cup.

One of the challenges for Fifa and its broadcast partners in Asia is that some of the smaller broadcasters in the region are using older, more vulnerable encryption standards. Industry insiders expect this situation to improve over time as smaller operators gradually migrate to the more modern standards that are tougher for pirates to crack.

The sports media industry source said encryption standards in Asia “are beginning to improve. They’re already very strong in Europe, as you’d expect, and also in Latin America, Brazil…Where they’ve been traditionally weak has been in Asia, [but] they are beginning to improve.”

Legal regimes

One of the leading experts on sports content piracy in Asia, Matthew Cheetham of the Asia Video Industry Association, told SportBusiness Media that the piracy seen around this year’s World Cup was a reminder for governments to have flexible legal measures to enable the video content industry to address the problem.

Cheetham runs AVIA’s Coalition Against Piracy, a body that works with broadcasters and rights-holders to tackle piracy in Asia. He previously led the English Premier League’s anti-piracy efforts in the region, which are regarded as industry-leading.

“I think something such as the World Cup highlights for us that governments must put in place legislative structures that are flexible enough to be able to move quickly, to best stop the piracy of live events,” Cheetham said.

The most effective weapon against piracy today is regulations that allow for the blocking of websites carrying live streams. Cheetham said the regulatory picture varies around Asia.

“Our primary [tool in] stopping content being pirated is site blocking. We use whatever available regimes there are around the region. I think the one that is probably the most responsive is the Indonesian regime. Malaysia also has a very good and relatively responsive regime. In Vietnam, the authorities are pretty good at site blocking.”

Singapore, which has one of the most sophisticated legal systems in the region, is actually one of the most difficult markets in which to get sites blocked. Cheetham said CAP does manage to block sites in Singapore, but only after long and expensive legal processes. Its measures are essentially ineffective for short-term, live content events like the World Cup:

“Live sports piracy is the hardest to combat because the content is premium, [and] because it’s live as opposed to VOD… By its very nature, it’s incredibly difficult to try and stop live content being pirated.”

Cheetham said governments sometimes have difficulty rolling out regulations fast enough to adapt to the ever-changing piracy challenge, but urged them to continue doing so:

“I get it, it’s not easy to change the law. Quite often, by the time they’ve done something, they feel so battered and bruised by the experience [it’s] like, ‘We gave you this five years ago, what more can we do?’ But technology and piracy moves so quickly that five years is a lifetime ago. As painful as it is, governments really need to be as nimble and as flexible as possible, and provide nimble and flexible tools to allow rights-holders to protect their content.”

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