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Member Insights: Takeaways from the popular ‘The Pirates vs The Premier League’ podcast

August 23, 2023

In this Member Insight piece, Richard Brinkman, discusses Piracy off the back of the popular The Pirates v The Premier League podcast.

In common with many that I speak to in the sports industry I regularly enjoy listening to some of the many podcasts that seek to address the business of sport. Unlike most I speak to I am in the privileged position of having one-foot in the industry and one-foot outside it. This means that I do not have any particular attachments or vested interests, and can more easily see the real-world perspective objectively.

With that in mind I have recently particularly enjoyed the Unofficial Partner Gillis/Cutler “collab” The Pirates vs The Premier League. If you have not started listening yet I can thoroughly recommend the first few bite-size episodes. It is as illuminating and thought-provoking as it is revealing.

As well as learning why Richard Gillis normally presents podcasts rather than edits them (for those of a certain age there is more than a whiff of hitting the red button at just the right moment on the cassette player as you listen to the charts on the radio – interestingly early piracy!), or how the Brummie accent can win-over open responses from the most unlikely of sources, you can also get a feel for the size of the piracy issue (courtesy of YouGov) and some salutary lessons that all sport would do well to be mindful of.

Here are some of my “everyman” thoughts about the lessons that the issue of Piracy and the Premier League (ie the unauthorised use of broadcast rights) has given rise to. Those in the “bubble” of sport may wish to ponder (or ignore!) these personal perceptions.

LESSON 1 : If you create a monster you better be sure you can feed it.

Football has always been popular – both in the UK and around the world. The EPL is football on steroids – everything bigger, better and to the Nth degree. Be prepared when the plan comes together and people cannot get enough of it. If you are not prepared to meet that demand do not be surprised (or outraged) when the market and enterprising individuals find a way to do so. Its called competition.

LESSON 2 : Treat a global sport in a global way.

If your ambition is to reap the rewards of universal appeal you will need a universal approach to broadcast and how people can consume your product. If it is one rule for one lot, and another elsewhere, you are creating unequal treatment of different “fans”. This is a breeding ground for piracy and legitimises illegal streaming in the mind of fans who feel they are being “hard done by” in comparison to their peers in other markets.

LESSON 3 : Do not let short-term expediency kick the problem down the road.

At the heart of this issue is good governance. The Premier League is run by the 20 clubs solely for the benefit of the 20 clubs. The voting power of the clubs far outweighs all other constituents. The clubs will almost always do what benefits them the most financially in the short-term. The prioritisation of revenue over stakeholder management of core customers is critical here. The market has been squeezed and the pips are now squeaking.

In the mid-00s the EPL had the opportunity to create and run their own broadcast platform. Ultimately, they decided that it was too difficult and distracting for an organisation that runs a football competition to take this route. Rather they selected the status-quo and out-sourced 99% of the customer experience to broadcasters in exchange for guaranteed fixed income which has consistently risen with each rights cycle.

Short-term this was financially expedient and lucrative. However, out-sourcing means the PL has lost control of how and what their consumers receive and, most importantly, how much they have to pay for it. The PL would do well to speak to the High Street banks or the likes of Vodafone to see how out-sourcing has benefitted short-term financial performance but damaged their long-term viability (think Monzo, Starling, Metro etc). Imagine how much more control the EPL would have over their approach to piracy, their own financial destiny and the ethical arguments over the issue were it running its own broadcast platform.

LESSON 4 : Don’t assume wide-spread support because your approach is deemed “legal”.

I am approaching 30 years of consistent Sky subscription, also subscribe to BT/TNT and pay my Licence fee annually by Direct Debit. I have never watched a football match via an illegal stream. I am as boring, middle-class and law-abiding as they come. Yet, nailing my colours to the mast, I find myself far more sympathetic to the pirates than I am to the Premier League.

How, why? If someone like me is not on the side of legitimate law-abiding business like the EPL then perhaps the issue runs deeper and demands more attention than the industry has given it up until now. Interestingly illegal streaming is almost certainly bigger than the YouGov figures from those that admit to it suggest.  As an aside, a favourite hobby-horse of another podcaster, Roger Mitchell.

Listen to the podcast – the hassle that the average punter is prepared to go through to get pirated football, to the regret in their voice that they are driven to it and then decide if the “its illegal” defence is the most sensible approach.

Condoning the police visiting 1000 homes in the West Midlands suspected of taking advantage of pirated content is counter-productive – an appalling waste of limited resource from the perspective of what else that time could be spent doing. The BBC has spent many years sending goons around to check up on suspected licence fee non-payers yet support for, and payment of, the licence fee has never been lower. Like prosecuting forgetful pensioners jailing a hapless middle-man in London (who registered his business, name and address at Companies House for goodness sake!!) does not make an example of him – more likely a martyr. Incidentally, It also makes absolutely no material difference to the issue!

LESSON 5 : Don’t try to force the genie back into the bottle once it has escaped.

The PL will not be able to rely on the law to extinguish the problem. Just as the drug cheats will always be one-step (at least) ahead of the WADA enforcement agents so the pirates will always find a way. The PL would be better spending the time, money and thought that they commit to detection and enforcement to reducing demand (accepting they will never fully extinguish it).

LESSON 6 : Be very careful that your own house is in order before you play the moral/ethics defence.

The “there are bad men, organised criminals, at the end of this chain” is not an argument that carries any moral weight in the context of football. There has been plenty of pretty organised dubious financial practice at football’s governing body and there is a direct link between some very questionable state-sponsored activities and the owners of Premier League clubs. Other owners have made considerable fortunes from legitimate businesses that are morally debatable – so much so that such businesses would not be allowed on the front of a Premier League shirt.

The EPL does not purport to be a purpose or values-led organisation – and nor should it. So why the high morals when it comes to something that is costing them money?

Equally the “this is not a victimless crime” approach does not hold much water in the real world. If ultimately Sky lose a few subscribers (unlikely – virtually all illegal streamers also watch legitimately) then that is unlikely to elicit too much sympathy. Victims could also potentially be the salaries of players or pundits. I am not convinced too many tears would be shed if Gary Lineker’s £600k pa BBC contract were slimmed down, or if Tyrone Mings’ £3.8m per season, Matt Targett’s £5m per season, or Chris Wood’s £80k per week were to be adversely effected.

Nothing against those players, they are fine professionals but hardly top-draws. The truth is that The Premier League is awash with money. Indeed, it is so excessive that it is little wonder that football fans do not feel their illegal steaming makes any difference to the business.

The EPL could give enforce a 15% wage cut on every first-team player and it would still be by far the best paid league in the world. Mings, Targett and Wood could have their wages halved and they would still be in the top 0.5% best paid in the country (beyond every FTSE100 CEO by the way). Yes, they may leave to play in Saudi but would that really effect EPL attendances or viewership?

Imagine a world where that money might be used to reduce TV subscriptions and ticket prices, launch an access all games for your club pass, extend the excellent job club foundations currently do with less than 1% of turnover and/or increase the contributions across the entire football pyramid? In such a world any football fan might have cause to revisit their decision to illegally stream footage. Truly food for thought.

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