If you can’t beat them, tweet them

Stuart Fuller

The issue of illegal streaming in the sports industry is nothing new. Whilst social media has made the issue significantly worse, rights holders have for years tried to cope with individuals setting up cameras to intercept coverage of live sporting events and uploading content onto peer-to-peer streaming services. Social media has facilitated taking the sharing of illegal streams to the next level, with applications such as Periscope providing a mechanism that is the intellectual property lawyer’s worst nightmare. Whilst all of the social media networks offer the ability for brand and rights holders to take down infringing content, it is the damage caused in the here and now that needs addressing, not some time after the event.

One of the most watched sports on TV is NFL. With a relatively limited season when compared with other major sports, and huge demand for tickets to the games, the networks fall over themselves to be able to secure the rights to the games. Unfortunately that has meant that a product with a relative high barrier to entry for fans unable to get to the games and thus cyber-criminals entering the arena to try to capitalize on the demand for the product.

However, in a bid to try and solve one of the biggest issues facing the rights holders, on Thursday night the first ever NFL game was legitimately streamed on social media. The New York Jets visit to the Buffalo Bills was streamed live via Twitter for anyone to see – there was no requirement to sign up or even follow a particular user such as the NFL itself or a broadcast partner. You didn’t even need to have a Twitter account – you could watch the game via the Twitter website. You did have to see the “timeline” of tweets from people who were talking about it, using the hashtag #TNF (Thursday Night Football) but there was some human intervention to ensure that they were politically correct and not giving a platform to anyone or anything controversial.

The two parties (Twitter and the NFL) signed the agreement to stream ten games back in April for a relatively modest $10 million and this was the first one to be made available. The Social Media giant has also signed similar deals with the Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Hockey League (NHL). Their return on investment is in the form of selling advertising within the Twitter stream timeline (which can’t be opted out of), although it was unclear after the game how successful this had proved.

One issue picked up by some commentators was that the stream was identical to that being offered by CBS and NBC, both showing the game free to air, so the 'scarcity' value wasn’t really there. However, from the point of view of demonstrating that the social media model could work, it was a thumbs up from everyone.

Whether the illegal streamers enjoyed the show is another story. But perhaps similar in a way to how Netflix made a big impact on the number of illegal movie and TV streams, time will prove this is a compelling moment in the way against sports piracy.