A prison sentence that says much about English football

June 8 – In late May, a news story broke that detailed the conviction of a gang of five men for running illegal streams of Premier League football.

The gang, who made over £7 million from the enterprise, was sentenced to a combined 30 years in prison, including an 11-year sentence from the ringleader, Mark Gould.

The gang’s tactics were quite simple: Take live feeds from abroad, including Qatar and the United States, and stream them a few seconds behind for customers, charging them £10 a month for the service.

While nobody should condone criminal activity – and we aren’t doing that here – it’s worth noting that the reaction on social media to the news was largely one of exasperation. Nobody was taking the side of the criminals, and there should be an admission that often these ‘victimless’ crimes like illegal streaming can be associated with larger, more nefarious criminal enterprises. However, there was still a sense of empathy on social media. The UK’s attitude to broadcasting its most valuable sports product is backward, punitive, and one that largely underserves fans. It was for that reason the social media reaction was one of understanding.

Blackouts can protect the matchday tradition

Of course, we all know that the UK’s broadcasting rules are somewhat unique, and some of it comes from an altruistic train of thought. The blackout at 3pm on a Saturday, for example. You might get five or six untelevised Premier League games at this time. One of the reasons that they are not shown live is to support lower-league clubs. The concept is sound, reasoning that if Manchester United was live on television on a Saturday at 3pm, you might not go to a Maidstone United or Mansfield Town game.

However, one of the issues is that it’s not abundantly clear how effective the tactic is. All around the UK on a Saturday afternoon, the pubs are packed with Premier League fans. They’ll be watching Sky Sports News Soccer Saturday on one screen, placing their football betting accas on the results. And yes, a huge number of pubs will have illegal streams of the 3pm Premier League matches on. For some pubs, it’s the busiest time of the week. And they play the illegal streams because there is no other option.

Pubs pay a lot for official broadcasts

Pubs play an important role in this discussion, as it is they, perhaps more than any others, that get shafted on official broadcasts. It can cost around £20,000 per year to install official Sky Sports and BT Sports in a medium-sized pub. Twenty thousand. It is a huge outlay – not to mention at a time when pubs across the land are struggling – and one that makes profit margins very tight. It’s for that reason that some bars ditch the two official broadcasters altogether, going all in on illegal streams.

If you look across social media, you will see the issue raised by UK soccer fans again and again. They look to the United States, where sports leagues often sell the rights to every game in a package, and wonder why they can’t see their favourite team on the television live every week. For fans of smaller clubs – let’s say Bournemouth, for example – it’s worse because they will be on ‘Super Sunday’ a lot less than the teams like Manchester United or Liverpool, while paying the same price for the package.

There is growing pressure on the Premier League to act on this matter, but many believe it will fall on deaf ears. There is plenty of money to be made using the current model – more than any league in the world – so why would they change it to satisfy fans? It might be wrong to go to your friend’s house to watch Everton on an illegal stream, and perhaps we should condemn it. But you can also understand it.

Contact the writer of this story at moc.l1716630577labto1716630577ofdlr1716630577owedi1716630577sni@o1716630577fni1716630577