David Lee explains why some organisations are looking into the possibility of screening live football over the internet for fans

Watching football online used to be a mostly jerky affair relying on an illegal link-up to a foreign TV channel showing a Premier League match. Most "free" links would lead the poor unsuspecting fan to a site offering ball action of a distinctly different sort, while unleashing viruses and other computer-based nasties on the way. If you did somehow manage to wade through the filth and find a working stream, it wouldn't be long until hundreds more joined you and, in the rush, slowed everything down to a halt. You'd give up and listen to Radio 5 Live. Or maybe go back to watching Ceefax refresh itself.

But now that internet connections have greatly improved, thousands of iffy football streaming sites have shown that despite the downsides of watching at your computer, there is a growing demand for live online coverage. Meanwhile, the shift in internet-enabled hardware from bedroom to front room has meant footage is just as likely to be streamed onto a family television. The trend certainly hasn't gone unnoticed.

Sky now allow subscribers to login to their website and watch football as it is broadcast on its various channels. At the moment the service is free to anyone who subscribes to Sky Sports 1 and 2, but this will not be the case later in the year.

Similarly, both BBC and ITV offered live World Cup games online for free. England's win over Slovenia saw the BBC website clock 1.5 million people, presumably in offices across the land, watching simultaneously. But perhaps most interesting – and in the long-term, arguably more significant – was the experiment taken on by Leeds United TV (LUTV) last August when they became the first English club to stream a live first-team match.

Due to rights restrictions, only overseas fans in certain countries – namely South Africa, Germany and Spain – could use the service, but it is a revenue stream previously unavailable to clubs. UK-based Leeds fans, while not able to watch the game live, could still watch the full 90 minutes later on in the evening – as they can with any Leeds home match. On top of the senior squad action, LUTV also broadcasts highlights packages of their reserve side. One for the die-hards, perhaps, but undoubtedly a shop window the club can make good use of.

The FA themselves took a somewhat unexpected leap into internet streaming in 2009 when the Setanta collapse meant there were no coverage plans for England's World Cup qualifier against Ukraine. They charged £3.99, and fans were reluctant to buy into a fixture they believed should be on free-to-air TV. However, free coverage of Under-21 fixtures has been well received. The Leeds pilot, and others like it across the Football League, opens the door to a new approach to sports broadcasting, the approach which says fans should be able watch the games they are personally interested in, rather than relying on the foresight of television planners.

Streaming matches online instead deflects the cost of live television, utilising cheap hardware, staffing and distribution methods. It would become even cheaper still if clubs didn't have to pay for any of it – which is where online video giant YouTube, owned by Google, may come into it. Last month they very quietly disclosed that they are in talks over online coverage deals with "most pro sports leagues" across Europe – an interest which follows on from their Indian Premier League cricket coverage last year which drew in 55 million viewers from 250 
different countries.

There's no suggestion of anything lined up for English football just yet, but the burst of illegal streaming sites bears an uncanny resemblance to the music and movie industry's own piracy tussle. While they worked tirelessly to shut down and prosecute illegal file sharers, far more effective an approach was to work with the likes of Apple to establish services like iTunes.

Likewise, football has arguably had what is known in piracy circles as its "Napster moment" – the opening of the floodgates which means fans know what is possible, and will now demand it. It means rights holders must rethink their approach to online streaming and, rather than spend money on legal teams combing the web for illegal sites, instead set up a deal and a platform which allows clubs to make best use of fans' insatiable appetite to watch their team.

From WSC 290 April 2011

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