Middle East football fans get onside to illegal streaming

Online piracy is growing in the Middle East compared with other regions, especially with improving broadband internet networks, experts say.

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ABU DHABI // Online piracy, and in particular the illegal streaming of football matches, is growing in the Middle East faster than any other region, experts say.

Consumers in the region are increasingly streaming illegally uploaded content or downloading torrents in a market once dominated by bootleg DVD salesmen.

Regulators have been largely unsuccessful in curbing piracy, so regional broadcasters are having to turn to new ways to win back customers while also protecting the interests and rights of content owners, said Ismail Patel, who specialises in global TV markets at Ovum, a UK analysis firm.

“Broadcasters are pretty much hamstrung when it comes to combating piracy directly,” he said.

Online piracy was growing in the West, but that trend had started to plateau, Mr Patel said, unlike in the Middle East.

“This online piracy causes massive disruption to the revenues of broadcasters and content owners,” he said.

Grey operators – operations that are neither legal nor illegal – are another problem. An example is watching Netflix through a VPN, or virtual private network.

About 200,000 users are paying for Netflix services in the Middle East, even though it does not officially offer services here, Mr Patel said.

“So that gives you an indication of how willing people are in the region to access content that hasn’t officially launched,” he said. “You can imagine the scale of how many people are accessing content free, and illegally, on online platforms.”

The region loses about Dh1.8 million to pirated material a year, OSN's chief executive has previously said.

But some measures that regional broadcasters take may backfire.

Many fans of English football are turning to pirated content online to watch matches, amid an anti-piracy campaign launched in March by beIN Sports.

Since November last year the Qatari broadcaster has been showing live only one of several Saturday English Premier League matches that kick off at 3pm UK time. And it has stopped streaming them online for beIN Connect subscribers.

It is believed the Premier League restricted the network’s rights because its broadcasts were pirated in the UK, despite efforts to improve encryption.

BeIN Sports has not responded to requests for comment. The Premier League declined to clarify the situation, saying it was not actively involved in broadcasters’ specific content offerings and, therefore, “not in a position to comment on any particular scheduling inquiries or issues”.

Many football fans in the UAE said that they have no option but to watch their team play through other online sources.

Sohaib Siddiqui, 26, a Manchester United fan originally from Pakistan, said he and his brother have started watching live streams of the matches on different websites.

Mr Siddiqui said that he had been frustrated by not receiving a response from the network about when all the matches would resume. “Whenever you make a complaint, that just goes completely ignored,” he said.

Another fan, Dan Perry, who runs a Birmingham City fans’ club in Dubai, said he had received a refund for his subscription to beIN’s online streaming service.

“My subscription has been cancelled, so no more legal football for me,” he said.

“I have now subscribed to one that isn’t legal, but allows me to stream the matches, plus many other more interesting sports feeds, like PGA golf and cricket, for a fraction of the price and wherever I am in the world,” he said.

Mr Patel said this was probably also the case for many consumers who want to watch Premier League games.

Especially in places with access to fast broadband speeds, “most customers are savvy enough to know that beIN Sports is not the only place where it [the Barclays Premier League] can be accessed”, he said. “You can safely assume that consumers are accessing this, and this is at a loss to both beIN and the Premier League.”