Facebook Is the Latest Port of Call for Soccer Fans Who Pirate Live Streams

From the early days of weird BitTorrent-based apps to Facebook livestreaming, soccer fans will do whatever it takes to get their fix.

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Mar 21 2017, 10:00am

Soccer being illegally streamed has been around for so long that I've heard Premier League games commentated on in every language imaginable. Though there's a new form of online piracy that no one seems to be talking about, which is odd, as it has a global audience of 1.86 billion people.

Facebook introduced Facebook Live, the social network's live streaming service, at the beginning of 2016, beginning the slow but inevitable transition of the company into an all-video platform. In that time, the service has been used to stream just about everything from presidential debates to relationship spats involving famous sports stars that you were probably not meant to see.

One of the side effects of Facebook Live is piracy. A quick Google search of "facebook live streaming soccer" will return you results for a plethora of Facebook pages that host live streams of soccer matches. It's pretty trivial to set up your own , with a number of apps and gadgets out there that will capture footage from your computer to stream live on Facebook, in the same way that someone captures footage of a video game to stream on Twitch.

A big part of why streaming has caught on—particularly in the United Kingdom—is the eye-wateringly high price packages consumers are paying. In 2015, Sky and BT paid a combined £5.136 billion (more than $7.8 billion at the time) for Premier League TV rights for the next three seasons. The cheapest Sky Sports package is currently £27.50 (about $34) per month, which still only gets you one sports channel. As seen with the proliferation of illegal streams, many fans simply cannot afford to pay these prices any more.

But what is Facebook doing to combat the expanding chaos of illegal streaming? In April 2016, Product Manager Analisa Tamayo Keef discussed their Rights Manager tools on their Facebook blog: "We check every Facebook Live video stream against files in the Rights Manager reference library, and if a match surfaces, we'll interrupt that live video."

That software being used is Audible Magic, used to check for content recognition, and giving rights holders online reporting tools for submitting copyright and trademark infringement reports. Think of it as fingerprint scanning but for audio.

I asked Mike Edwards, General Manager for Audible Magic, on how this applies to live sport: "Live presents technical issues. It is possible to recognize live TV, but if you are looking at audio, it isn't that good for recognizing live streaming of sports." He continued: "The reason being that there may be one feed from either Sky or BT, but that feed will be fed to several different hundred broadcasters—all that have different commentaries and all have their own different soundtrack."

But even audio and video fingerprint recognition on recorded content found on YouTube has its flaws, as people have developed tricks to bypass these barriers using pitch shifting, rotating the video, or minimizing the copyrighted part of the video so it goes unnoticed.

Within Keef's blog post, she also mentions that Facebook was adding additional resources to address copyright issues, allowing rights holders to report videos while live. 

The Premier League did not reply to a Motherboard request for comment.

All of this is not to say that Facebook is opposed to the idea of streaming soccer. The company recently announced 22 matches from the MLS will stream on the Univision Deportes Facebook page, including fan Q&A and polling features that engage directly with the Facebook-specific commentators. In August 2016, Manchester United and Wayne Rooney streamed a charity soccer match between the club and Evertonthe first match to be broadcast over Facebook in the UK. Elsewhere in the world, Univision announced that 46 games of Liga MX (the highest division in Mexican soccer) would be broadcast on the social network, though the financial terms of this have not been announced. And the February 17 match between Granada and Real Betis was the first of what will be a weekly live stream of the Friday night fixture in Spain's top flight division.

This is not only the case with soccer, as Major League Baseball is reportedly in talks with Facebook to stream one game per week during its upcoming season.

Will the Premier League follow suit? As US soccer executives attempt to expand the reach of the growing MLS, building on a relationship with Facebook makes sense. However, the sheer amount of money that BT and Sky Sports have invested in the Premier League means such a relationship seems unlikely in the near future.