The transfer fees being dished out by European soccer teams this summer have been nothing short of ludicrous. Soccer clubs in the English Premier League have already spent over £1 billion with weeks of the window still to play out, and the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata, and Benjamin Mendy have arrived for £75 million, £58 million, and £52 million respectively. Transfer fees have been growing steadily since the 1960s, and every time the world record fee is broken some will ask: ‘Has the world gone mad?’ The rate of growth has intensified in recent years, though, and some are questioning just how far the transfer fee bubble can inflate.
Though, as many tut and bemoan the death of honest soccer, there are those that understand that this is simply the state of play in the world’s most attractive sport. Soccer has a sort of internal economy, complete with hyper-accelerated inflation in both transfer fees and wages that have led us to this point of financial farce. What causes this inflation? Well, commercial deals and international reach have propelled European clubs to superstar status, and the financial clout this affords them means that they can handle the outlay. In fact, as a percentage of income, clubs were paying far more for players in the late 90s and 2000s than they are today.
It’s difficult at a glance to see who is actually missing out here. Clubs have the incomes to finance the transfers and ticket prices, though still high, haven’t ballooned quite like the fees have - poorer fans were already all-but priced out of top Premier League stadiums before transfer fees became enormous. Well, one group is the fans that for whatever reason can’t make it to live matches with any regularity, i.e. those that watch soccer on television.
Fans that don’t want to miss a single one of their team’s televised games are forced to buy subscriptions to both Sky Sports and BT Sport. There are a number of ways customers can get both packages, but any one of them will cost at least £50 every month. Given that your team will play between four and eight games a month, this outlay is simply too much for many to justify.
And, despite paying so much, fans are denied a great deal of matches thanks to the Premier League’s ‘Blackout’ law - Saturday fixtures that kick off between 2:45pm and 5:15pm are not permitted for television in an effort to drive more people into stadiums. This means that, of the 380 Premier League matches every season, Sky Sports subscribers will be able to see just 126, and significantly fewer are available on BT Sport. Indeed, for many, illegal streaming is the only way to watch a live 3pm Saturday kick-off from the comfort of their own home.
So, many turn to illegal online streaming, and any soccer fan without the means to shell out the astronomical prices for legitimate services will be familiar with trawling through pop-up riddled sites for a more-than-240p stream that doesn’t crash after five minutes. These streams are free, though, and offer a better picture more often than you might think. Nearly half of fans admit to having streamed a match online, while one in five do so at least once a week, according to the BBC.
Just last week, the English Premier League was dealt a significant boost when it obtained a High Court Blocking Order that it hopes will make it near impossible for fans to stream live matches. The action will come into effect when the new season commences on August 11, and promises to deny illegal streams ‘by any means’, with UK internet providers obliged to block servers that host illicit channels.
‘This blocking Order is a game-changer in our efforts to tackle the supply and use of illicit streams of our content,’ Premier League director of legal services, Kevin Plumb, said in a statement. ‘It will allow us to quickly and effectively block and disrupt the illegal broadcast of Premier League football via any means, including so called ‘pre-loaded Kodi boxes.’ The protection of our copyright, and the investment made by our broadcast partners, is hugely important to the Premier League and the future health of English football.’
Ultimately, live football is the Premier League’s commodity. It deals in live games, matches that Sky Sports and BT Sports paid a mind-blowing £5.14 billion for the right to host in 2015. The price clearly makes sense for the major broadcasters which is testament to the global appeal of the Premier League - mega-money can be found in all areas of the business of soccer, and the arms race for TV rights is simply a symptom of the opportunities this presents rather than a cause.
Not everyone who streams matches online will immediately buy a subscription to Sky if the sites are shut down, but the major broadcasters will be missing out on millions if they don’t act. Up until this point, though, illegal hosting sites have been able to outsmart internet providers, and their success has been part of the reason that official Premier League viewership figures are down. The lucrative deal the Premier League made with Sky and BT has taken revenue from £3.6 billion to £4.5 billion, according to the Guardian, and it’s unsurprising that they’re taking any steps they can to protect these partners.
So long as both TV subscriptions and match day tickets remain expensive, there will be a demand for illegal streaming sites. A concerted and compulsory crackdown has the potential to make finding a stream more difficult, but tech’s ability to outpace the authorities has been repeatedly demonstrated. The astronomical cash flow in soccer isn’t particularly unpalatable until it directly affects fans’ ability to watch the sport they love, and it’s thanks to this that you won’t find too many people condemning illegal streaming sites. Illegal streaming is wrong, but so are extortionate TV packages. Soccer needs to find a middle ground.