Tackling the live sports piracy challenge

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By Ali Hodjat

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Opportunities and challenges of  live sports streaming

The digital provision of live sports has created some of the most significant opportunities the sports broadcasting industry has seen in decades. The ongoing transition from traditional pay-TV to OTT has created more competition as UHD-quality live-action can now be streamed directly to anyone with an OTT streaming device or a smart TV regardless of their location.  Although this move has greatly increased the potential revenue for sports rights holders and service providers, it has also created a major challenge to fully monetizing those assets as a result of sports content piracy. 

Rights to most premium sporting events are split across different streaming platforms, such as Peacock Premium, ESPN+, Paramount+, and others, and some subscribers have no choice but to subscribe to different services to watch all their favorite content, and that costs a lot. This has given pirates the opportunity to offer services that bundle different sporting content at a lower cost (since pirates by defnition don’t pay for content). Over half of sports fans admit to watching pirated content every month, making subscription-based OTT piracy services alone a multi-billion dollar industry in the US.

Between service providers and rights holders, the sports broadcasting and streaming industry suffers significant revenue loss due to various forms of piracy. Unfortunately, this major threat is not a simple one to eradicate completely, and implementing effective anti-piracy measures by the sports streaming industry is a challenge.

The challenge of piracy prevention

Tackling piracy is an existential mission for all stakeholders and deploying effective content protection should be the first priority. A key technology to securing live sports stream is digital rights management (DRM), which only allows authenticated users to decrypt protected content. However, there are a number of significant challenges to deploying DRM solutions and these include:

  • Fragmented streaming device market: Globally, there is healthy competition between OEMs that produce smart TVs, and other streaming devices. This is good for innovation and the consumer, but proprietary DRM technology can cause issues with compatibility and interoperability between the stream origin and the consumer device. Problems can include delays, buffering, high latency, and content not being unlocked for an authorized user.
  • Different operating systems: Along with the security choices by hardware manufacturers, the diverse field of operating systems is another challenge for successful DRM deployment. Each OS is designed slightly differently regarding security features such as cryptographic operations, execution environments, and general app protections.
  • Scaling license provision: Scaling and providing licenses to authorized users in a timely fashion is important for all streaming services, but especially so for live sports. For sports streaming services, this could involve distributing tens of millions of licenses for the same content in real time, which can put incredible strain on even the best DRM license delivery systems. 
  • Ensuring zero latency: The beauty and value of live sports action are in its immediacy; everyone finds out what happens at exactly the same time. As a result, consumers paying to access high-quality sports content have little patience for latency. Therefore, a DRM solution must create as little latency as possible during the authentication and provisioning process.

Multi-DRM service: Core to the anti-piracy strategy 

One step to tackle piracy is to protect the sports streaming service, while ensuring smooth device interoperability and a quality viewing experience for the end-user. Fortunately, this can be achieved by a cloud-based multi-DRM service that ensures compatibility with all devices, operating systems, and DRMs. For a multi-DRM service to be effective, it needs to be robust enough to protect the streams yet cause minimum disruption to the consumer. The ideal multi-DRM service must also have unlimited, high-speed scalability to address the very large and simultaneous DRM license delivery needs unique to live sports streaming.

OTT streaming services should outline clear contingency planning for dealing with piracy threats before it happens. Beyond the multi-DRM service, the strategy should preferably include forensic watermarking, content monitoring, and digital fingerprinting so that illegal streams can be identified and shut down quickly. Video streaming service platforms have to play a large role in encouraging  consumers of pirated streams over to a paid subscription. It is recognized that the “converter cohort,” that is those who are closest to moving towards paying for subscriptions, are actually among the most engaged sports fans, and small differences in price, quality, and user experience could make a big difference in turning them from illegal streamers to happy, paying customers.

Tackling live sports streaming piracy successfully

Video content is still the crown jewel of the sports industry and is under piracy attack like never before. Live sports streaming services and content owners face significant challenges to protect this most valuable asset on its journey to legitimate subscribers. These challenges include several threats such as restreaming, credential and password sharing, geo-location fraud,  and piracy sites, apps, and devices. 

Tackling live sports piracy successfully is possible as proven by several case studies and interviews with Premier League and La Liga’s Mondro takedown, Uefa’s success in tackling piracy during Euro 2020, and the BeIN sports guide for thwarting piracy. To learn more about these use cases and interviews for turning piracy into an opportunity for revenue growth, download “Content protection and the fight against streaming piracy” report, brought to you by Intertrust ExpressPlay in conjunction with SportsPro. 

To find out more about how ExpressPlay’s multi-DRM service is protecting sports content assets, read more here or talk to our team.

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About Ali Hodjat

Ali Hodjat is the VP Marketing for Intertrust ExpressPlay. He has extensive experience in leading product management and product marketing activities in the fields of content protection and pay-TV security, anti-piracy, and IoT security solutions.