It’s been a running theme for the past few years, and as more and more people get faster Internet connections, and as video compression technology continues to improve, we’re going to be hearing a lot more about it. I refer, of course (of course!), to illegal streams of live sporting events. Whether you’re firing up TVAnts on Sunday to watch Arsenal take on Aston Villa, or trolling USTREAM for a live feed of WWE’s Royal Rumble, or looking for MMA-TV to watch this month’s UFC pay-per-view, you are, in fact, breaking the law. Not only are you breaking the law, but you may even be taking money away from the companies/teams/sports you purport to support. But is that all there is to it?
Lorenzo Fertitta, the co-owner of UFC (the more famous Dana White is the company’s president), recently went to Capitol Hill to discuss the problems facing UFC with respect to online piracy. He told the House Judiciary Committee that some 140,000 people watched UFC 106, the company’s November pay-per-view event headline by Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Grifin, online using various streaming sites. UFC had identified 271 unauthorized streams, which is where the 140,000-person estimate comes from. Surely there were more streams that UFC didn’t find—how can you patrol the entire Internet?—and the numbers don’t include non-live viewership. You know, BitTorrent and the like. I can’t help but think that they are people out there who avoid reading UFC results until they are able to download a torrent the next day.
You’ll recall that WWE started going after illegal online streams earlier this year. The thing is, WWE claimed, quite like Fertitta here, that online streams were damaging its bottom line. That’s not necessarily the case. The very first pay-per-view that WWE actively patrolled illegal streams for, June’s The Bash, was among the least purchased pay-per-views of the year. If we were to follow WWE’s logic, that buyrates (the number of people who buy a pay-per-view) would increase once the streams were eliminated, well, then The Bash would have done better than the previous pay-per-view, May’s Extreme Rules. It didn’t: The Bash did 178,000 buys to Extreme Rules’ 213,000.
(I would suggest that the best way for WWE to improve its bottom line is to improve its product and not blame externalities like illegal online streams. You cannot expect people to continue to buy pay-per-view events or watch the TV shows when the talent roster is stale, bland, and woefully misused (see: pushes starting and stopping to the point of destroying a wrestler’s future credibility); when storylines make little to no sense, even accounting for the suspension of disbelief required to watch pro wrestling in the first place; when comedy, and I use the word lightly, becomes the focal point of each and every show at the expense of, I don’t know, wrestling (see: The Little People’s Court and the Tiger Woods gag from last Monday’s Raw–what does Tiger Woods’ current pickle have to do with WWE?); when guest hosts, who have no business being on its television, act as if they’re “above” the crowd and people watching at home (insulting the audience isn’t exactly a good idea) or refer to non-existent events like “SummerFest”; when a wrestler who co-headlined the biggest WreslteMania ever (buyrate-wise) dies and not a single word is mentioned on television. I could go on but that would be boring. The point is, WWE isn’t very good these days and illegal streams have nothing to do with that.)
All of this assumes, of course, that people viewing illegal online streams are inherently lost customers. That’s the same argument the RIAA tried to make, and look where it got those guys. Believe it or not, but people do exist who have zero intention of purchasing a pay-per-view. If the stream goes down they’re not going to call their cable company to buy the event, but rather will go about their business as if nothing happened. You don’t have to worry about these guys: pay-per-views could cost $2 and they still wouldn’t buy ‘em
Here’s how I look at it: you have to figure that the people who are watching these illegal streams are younger people. What 50-year-old man is going to sit down and figure out how to forward his router’s ports so that some Chinese-made P2P application works properly? Piracy is a young person’s game. Now, if you’re UFC or WWE you can look at this as they currently look at it, which is to freak out and yell, You’re stealing our money! Or, you can look at it like this: let’s assume some 15-year-old kid is tooling around on a message board in one window with a UFC stream in another window. This kid doesn’t have $50 per month to pay for UFC pay-per-views, and maybe his parents wouldn’t let him buy one in the first place. So rather than eliminating this kid’s exposure to your product, why not bank on the fact that, in a few years when this kid has a proper job and can afford to buy things, he’ll throw some of his new-found discretionary income your way? “Oh man, I remember UFC from a few years back. I used to love that shit. Let me order a pizza and invite my friends over so we can watch the fight tonight on my huge TV.”
Does anybody in these organizations think like that?
Yes, I understand that that’s an unorthodox way of looking at things, but what great company or organization didn’t think “outside of the box” every once in a while? Again, to make the music industry comparison, they tried to sue everyone under the sun to bring things back to the way they were. That clearly didn’t happen, and it only served to harm the music industy’s image in the eyes of the public.
So to the UFC and WWE I say this: chill out. You don’t want to end up like the music industry, especially when you (well, mainly the UFC) have the potential to be absolutely huge. Don’t mess it up by overreacting to your piracy problem.