October 3, 2013

Illegal streaming sites aren't the problem

Cricket boards must realise that they can't tame the internet. They are better off trying to figure out how to engage cricket's young online audience

No one in their right mind would watch cricket via an illegal streaming site if they had a choice © AFP

I have a confession to make: I used to run a Twitter cricket parody account. Yes, I know, they are terrible. It's not something I'm proud of. Although in my defence, I was using it to mock the ECB, which is as close to doing god's work as you'll find on social media.

This was at the start of last year, when the English cricket authorities had just produced the Morgan Review, their latest attempt to reorganise domestic cricket by setting fire to common sense and dancing naked around the flames.

The undoubted "highlight" of the Morgan Review was a recommendation that England's domestic first-class tournament, the County Championship, would see the number of fixtures each team played reduced from 16 to 14. Exactly how counties could play the other eight sides in their division home and away for a total of 14 games was never convincingly explained - perhaps the superfluous fixtures would be removed in some kind of David Blaine television spectacular, or Stephen Hawking could change the fundamentals of mathematics so that 8 x 2 was no longer 16?

Whatever the ECB's exact thinking, there was a lot of disquiet in English cricket that an attempt was being made to mend the one part of the domestic schedule that seemed to be working well. Supporters in particular were far from impressed. Some organised petitions and surveys, some vented their spleen on internet forums, and me, I set up @ECB_PR.

The conceit behind the account was fairly simple: it was supposedly run by someone in the ECB's PR and marketing department to comment on their working day. In reality, that meant a steady stream of jokes mocking the ECB in general and the Morgan Review in particular. I guess over time it became increasingly surreal, but it was fun to write and picked up a few thousand followers who seemed to get the joke.

After a few months the Morgan Review was kicked into the long grass, and sensing that I was in danger of repeating myself, I did something that rarely seems to happen with these kinds of parody accounts; I closed it down before it started to outstay its welcome.

I know some followers of the account speculated that it had been removed at the ECB's request, but at the time I didn't know if they were even aware of its existence. It was only later that a journalist told me he'd spoken to them about @ECB_PR and that they thought it was "funny and, generally, was good for the game".

The various national governing bodies of cricket are not renowned for their air of cuddly lovability but that reaction seemed pretty humanising to me. Somewhere in the ECB there were people who could take a joke, and perhaps more tellingly, understood and were unafraid of the big bad internet.

That's not always the impression that is given, however. Over the last week we've seen one of the more popular cricket accounts on Twitter, @AltCricket, temporarily removed, with the finger pointed at cricket authorities who have become increasingly aggressive at issuing legal complaints when posts on social media link to internet sites that illegally stream cricket matches.

It's easy to see why cricket administrators might feel these streaming sites are a threat to their primary source of income, television broadcasting rights. What's harder to understand is how they think they'll be any more successful at taming the internet than the music, television and movie industries have been.

The ECB might have succeeded in closing down hundreds of streaming sites already but this is just a game of digital whack-a-mole. Take down one site and another appears in its place. Issue warnings to users of social media who are linking to them and people will just send the links via private message.

And let's be clear about this: streaming sites are not quite the all-consuming threat to income that broadcasters believe them to be. No one in their right mind would watch cricket via an illegal streaming site if they had a choice. The viewing area is small, the feed delayed, and the slightest drop in your internet connection speed can stop the stream. You're not front row centre for the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury; you're 50 yards back watching from near the queue for the Portaloos. These sites are used by people who can't afford television subscription fees, or because a game of interest isn't being aired in their country. The people using them might not be directly contributing to the broadcast rights money the game depends upon, but they are genuine fans who support and financially contribute to the game in other ways.

So perhaps my impression that there are people who understand the internet within cricket's governing bodies doesn't extend to the organisations as a whole? But then why should it? Exactly how to harness the internet's almost unique capacity to promote whilst coming to terms with its culture of providing free content is a problem every part of the entertainment industry is struggling with.

What's easier to understand is that attempts to curb aspects of internet culture you don't like are as pointless as King Canute trying to hold back the tide. The internet, like the sea, will always find a way around you. Cricket administrators can chase after the streaming sites as aggressively as they like but they'll never catch them all. And in the process they are more likely to cause ill will by knocking into ordinary supporters during their pursuit. Instead of issuing warnings to popular cricket Twitter accounts, administrators would be better off studying how the people behind them are using the internet to promote the game to a younger, more tech-savvy audience.

Oh, and for the record, I have a new Twitter account now. It's not a parody this time, but in the spirit of @ECB_PR I did tweet the ECB, BCCI and ICC last Sunday asking if they had a link to a site illegally streaming the Breaking Bad finale. None of them replied.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on October 4, 2013, 20:47 GMT

    I live in the USA. We have one cricket channel in my area, which carries feeds from an Indian broadcaster. I subscribe to this channel. However, I am an England fan and this channel does not always carry the England game, especially if it conflicts with one from the subcontinent. What else can I do but watch an illegal stream? I'm already paying for all there is to get legally, so I'm not depriving anyone of any money.

    I'd gladly pay for a legal TV channel or internet feed carrying English cricket. Just tell me where I can get it. If the ECB chooses not to provide anything in my area, then don't tell me not to watch the only thing available.

  • Rajesh on October 4, 2013, 10:45 GMT

    Good Article. I do not have a problem paying for viewing cricket. However, I do not want to pay a hugely disproportionate amount, in relation to the amount of cricket I see. These days, with our busy schedules, and with so many competing means of entertainment (thanks to internet), we hardly watch a few hours of cricket a month, so paying such astronomical subscriptions to TV companies who bundle other unwanted channels as part of the package does not make sense at all. Also with people owning so many devices, it is crazy that the whole family can watch only on channel on one TV, when we have a subscription for hundreds of channels. There is no doubt that Cable TV as we know it will die a slow death in the next decade or two, so I hope the Cricket boards are smart enough to realise that and start planning for alternate sources of income like online streaming to sustain themselves.

  • G on October 4, 2013, 10:42 GMT

    The ECB doesn't need to look too far to see why grounds are so empty. ====== I don't see what difference it makes attending a county game on whether England are on Sky or not. In fact, this should encourage people to go watch some live cricket instead of just watching yet another ODI on sky

  • Galen on October 4, 2013, 7:08 GMT

    Good article. People only use online streams if they cannot afford pay tv. Many of my friends love cricket but none of us can afford pay tv, so I am extremely grateful that channel 9 and other channels show cricket on free to air tv. I love cricket but if it wasn't for these channels I probably would never have developed an interest in it.

  • Dummy4 on October 4, 2013, 0:18 GMT

    This is why IPL rocks, no need of using blurry, illegal streaming sites as you can watch it on Youtube in HD!!

  • Dummy4 on October 3, 2013, 21:57 GMT

    Not everyone can afford a Sky Subscription. If they want cricket to remain it's popularity then they should not be caring about us watching cricket on illegal streams. But instead focus on how to increase the current audience. Here in New Zealand Sky costs $50 a month as is, then an $? for some sports channel. ECB is blind to the real problem, that problem is empty grounds or the low cricket audience.

  • Adam on October 3, 2013, 15:08 GMT

    To watch any form of cricket on tv would set me back well over £600 a year for a Sky Sport subscription. I am not a rich man and this is obviously completely untenable.

    Realistically, the ECB have two options, set up some kind of cheap online streaming channel for, say ~£10 a month that shows live test and county cricket, or else accept that millions of people will either be watching on illegal streaming sites or - worse - will move onto other more accessible sports.