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Premier League fears web pirates

By Margot Dunne
Jonathan Maitland, BBC Radio 5 Live

Rio Ferdinand, Manchester United; David Di Michele, West Ham United
Will the internet put an end to huge football salaries?
The Premier League has admitted that illegal streaming of live football on the internet could have a dramatic impact on the professional game's finances.

A new deal worth almost two billion pounds over three years has just been reached between the Premier League, and broadcasters Sky and Setanta, who will show live matches in the UK.

But could it be the last big money deal that the game attracts?

Millions of fans are circumventing subscription channels by watching illegally-streamed matches on the internet for free.

Premier League lawyer Oliver Weingarten told the BBC that the most popular illegal sites attract up to a quarter of a million viewers for a single game.

He confirmed that this could potentially have an effect on the price the league is able to demand for its product in future negotiations.

"The long term consequences for the game are that it has the potential to devalue or dilute the rights value, and in turn that will dilute the product that we are able to turn out and the quality of player coming to the league."

The Scottish Premier League faces the same problem.

Simple technology

Recent advances in technology and the increased availability of broadband mean that it is now easier than ever to broadcast and watch illegally streamed football.

All you need is a computer, some software and access to a high speed internet connection.

With so much potentially at stake, the Premier League has joined together with rights holders from other sports to take legal action in an attempt to stamp out the practice.

Fans queue for tickets
Will fans stop taking their money through the turnstiles?
They are not planning to target the end user but are concentrating their efforts instead on the sites showing the games.

They have successfully taken legal action against five websites in the UK so far and have a class action pending against Google and YouTube in the United States.

But Weingarten says, as the music and film industries have already discovered to their cost, closing down the pirates for good is far from easy.

"Once a site has stopped streaming it can set up another domain name, or the Internet Service Provider may be safe-harboured in a country where the laws don't provide as much protection as we would like."

It is not only the two big UK rights holders - Sky and Sentanta - that could be out of pocket. Several top clubs also pay substantial sums for the right to show their games and highlights on their own TV stations and websites.

The BBC too pays the Premier League for the pictures shown on Match of the Day.

Fan culture

Weingarten warned that the atmosphere at stadiums could suffer if fans stay at home and watch the action on illegal pirate sites rather than going along to the game.

Gate receipts and catering sales, an important source of income, could also be affected.

Middlesbrough fans with painted faces
Can anything beat being in the crowd at the game?
In the long run, predicts Oliver Weingarten, British clubs would not have the money to buy the world's top class players.

But would a drop in revenue really affect the quality of players the League could attract?

Internet pirate TV is a global phenomenon - leagues like Serie A and La Liga are similarly affected.

New era?

If Weingarten's predictions about possible falls in income come true, then no league would be able to pay the huge salaries that top players can currently command.

For the fans, it could mean a return to an era of more affordable football.

In the end, as the music and film industries have already discovered, when there is a free alternative, it may well be that the true value of a product will be determined by fans with a mouse click.

Hear more about this story on the Jonathan Maitland show on BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday 22 February at 7pm, or download the free podcast.

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see also
Premiership TV case goes to court
15 Apr 08 |  Business
Free TV football scam conviction
05 Mar 08 |  North west
Illegal net sport faces crackdown
29 Nov 06 |  Entertainment

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