Live streaming via fans' mobiles – the challenge for sports bodies and broadcasters

Out-Law Analysis | 22 Apr 2015 | 9:29 am | 4 min. read

FOCUS: New mobile applications that let fans stream live video footage on the internet are unlikely to change the way major sporting events are broadcast but could help minority sports bodies attract a new audience or help clubs deliver behind-the-scenes access to fans on a cost-effective basis.

The technology promises to challenge how sports rights holders protect the value of the broadcasting rights they sell to TV companies. 

Sports bodies must consider how they can address the threat to the value of their rights, but some might find that working with broadcasters to embrace fans' live streaming presents both parties with opportunities to enhance existing coverage. 

Technology's impact on sports event coverage 

Technology has played an integral role in enhancing broadcast coverage of sporting events over the years. From the transition from radio to TV coverage, there have been developments such as the availability of instant replays, innovative new camera angles like 'ref cam' in rugby, and most recently the trend towards posting short video clips of action online

Whilst live streaming is not a new technology, the launch of new applications such as Meerkat and Twitter-owned Periscope mean that it is now possible for fans to shoot live footage from sports events on their smartphones and instantly share it on Twitter. 

It means that rather than being a platform for instant reactive coverage and debate, social media can now be used as a live broadcasting platform, potentially disrupting traditional commercial business models in the sports industry. 

Meerkat and Periscope have already been embraced by musicians, journalists and politicians. The impact on the world of sport will soon be felt, whether it is fans sharing their view of matches from their seat in a stadium or pitch-side reporters or clubs themselves giving a different perspective on the action. 

This change is likely to cause concern for some TV broadcasters and sports bodies. Sports content is highly prized. Broadcasters pay huge sums of money to rights holders for the right to showcase matches on their channel on an exclusive basis, knowing that it guarantees audiences and attracts advertising revenues. Any dilution of that exclusivity has serious potential financial implications. 

Is enforcement the answer? 

Sports bodies could come under pressure from broadcast partners to disrupt live streaming that competes with their official channels of coverage. However, enforcement is both a logistical nightmare and a public relations minefield.

In Europe it would not be a breach of copyright for fans to film sports events from inside stadia on their mobile phones and stream the action live online. However, if fans can source their fix of sporting content from unofficial streams for no or low cost then it could discourage them from physically attending matches, with the knock-on impact on turnover that would bring for clubs, and also reduce the value of official broadcasting rights. 

Instead of relying on intellectual property rights, sports bodies and clubs tend to rely on the terms they impose on access to events, such as to footballing stadia, usually detailed on tickets sold to fans. These terms generally prohibit filming when matches are in progress. Manchester United has gone even further and placed an outright ban on the use of tablet devices at its ground. 

Up until now clubs have adopted a light-touch approach to enforcing the filming ban in recognition of the resource and practical challenges involved in spotting filming in a large crowd in the first place and diverting limited steward numbers to step in and prevent the activity, especially when fans' passions are running high during a game. 

Live streaming could demand a rethink, however. How sports bodies respond to this technology is likely to be dictated by the pressure they are put under by broadcast partners. Clubs might have to put in place more stringent monitoring systems and eject, fine or even ban fans that engaging in filming. The solutions are unpalatable from a public relations perspective, and they are unlikely to prevent or deter everyone. 

Sports bodies, such as the Premier League in England, have a history of working with technology companies to combat live streaming online. However, in those cases the Premier League has relied on its ownership of copyright to clampdown on illicit broadcasts. 

It is possibly too soon to know how easy it will be for sports bodies or broadcast rights holders to identify offending Meerkat and Periscope streams and take effective action, and how willing the likes of Twitter will be to step in on the side of a rights holder, especially given that Periscope is a Twitter-owned product. 

Integrating fans footage into official coverage 

Broadcasters' official coverage of sports events is evolving all the time, with innovative ways being found to use new technology to deliver new angles and perspectives. 

Shaky hand-held mobile phone footage shot and streamed live by a fan is no substitute for professionally produced and edited HD footage of sports action by a broadcaster, and indeed technical constraints, such as a lack of Wi-Fi connectivity in many stadia will in any case frustrate some fans' attempts to live stream, at least in the short term. 

Even if the technology improves and the applications are used widely, most amateur shot footage is only likely to dent a broadcaster’s commercial model, not bend it out of place. 

Where live streaming technologies might have their biggest impact is in helping to enhance and differentiate coverage of minority sports or leagues, from delivering behind-the-scenes footage or depicting fans' reactions to action.

Clubs might also consider their informal use in pre-season friendlies or at the training ground, giving fans access to footage without incurring production costs. 

In cycling, fans' street-side footage of road races is already showcased in a move that is seemingly welcomed by cycling's world governing body the UCI. Cycling group Velon has also recently experimented with the use of cameras fitted on-board with cyclists. 

For sport that does not feature on television at all, live streaming applications can offer ways to attract a whole new, potentially global, online audience. 

Harnessed correctly, new technology such as Meerkat and Periscope can give new life to a sport, be used to grow interest and enhance existing coverage without cutting across what official broadcast partners offer, ultimately safeguarding the value of commercial rights on which many sports rely.

Julian Moore is a broadcasting rights expert in the sports team at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. A version of this article first appeared on the Sport Industry Group website.