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Mayweather-Pacquiao Fight Exposes Video Piracy Problems
Live streaming apps Meerkat and Periscope got bad press for allowing the fight to be pirated, but the real culprits have been around for far longer.
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The big Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight turned out to be, by almost all accounts, a big dud. Mayweather remained undefeated, but his reputation suffered for a strategy that emphasized defense, and the media attention in the weeks before the fight shone a spotlight on his long history of documented violence against women.

The total fight revenue had yet to be tallied at the time of this writing, but CBS Sports estimated that tickets, concessions, merchandise, and pay-per-view totals would reach $500 million. It was likely the biggest PPV event in television history. But that revenue came with a cost, at least to the PPV providers. As if social media complaints about the event’s pricing—$99 for HD—weren’t bad enough, cable providers had trouble keeping up with demand, and the fight had to be delayed 45 minutes while Charter, Comcast, and others caught up with last-minute orders. On top of that, both Comcast and Charter dealt with outages that affected not only the PPV but other channels as well.

If you believe some of the post-fight headlines, the big winners were Periscope and Meerkat, with thousands of people watching the fight on those live streaming services. Dick Costolo, CEO of Periscope’s parent company, Twitter, even went so far as to gloat about it in a tweet he might regret the next time he has to deal with HBO, Showtime, or any Hollywood studio.

Major media outlets such as USA Today seemed surprised that Periscope and Meerkat figured so heavily in pirating the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, but they shouldn’t have been. Sure, the quality of the video over either service pales in comparison to an HD PPV cable feed on a 60-inch screen, but history shows us that there’s always an audience for pirated content, even if that audience has to sacrifice quality. (Twitter and Instagram were full of photos of people peering through windows to catch a glimpse of the fight on TV screens in apartments two or three flights above the street.)

Of course, HBO and Showtime weren’t surprised at all. Peter Lewinton—founder of KLipcorp, a London-based firm that helps content rightsholders manage piracy threats—says Periscope and Meerkat were “certainly on the radar” as the fight approached, and earlier in the spring, HBO had expressed concern that Periscope would be used to illegally stream the season premiere of Game of Thrones. That prediction turned out to be right.

Periscope’s own CEO, Kayvon Beykpour, countered Costolo’s tweet with one of his own, saying that “piracy does not excite us,” claiming that he and many others at the company were working hard to “be responsive,” presumably to requests to shut down illegal streams of the fight. Lewinton says that Periscope and Meerkat could mimic YouTube’s takedown procedure, “which is almost instant.”

But Lewinton also suggests that a focus on apps that allow live streaming from mobile devices is missing the bigger piracy picture.

“Periscope and Meerkat are not likely to be the biggest issues,” he says, since live events benefit from sophisticated, multicamera production, which is minimized by a mobile phone capture of a TV screen and impossible for someone sitting in the audience to mimic. And both Periscope’s and Meerkat’s terms of service state that they reserve the right to remove infringing content without prior notice, and will terminate the accounts of repeat infringers.

Rather, the biggest threat remains from the many pirate websites that have been around for years, sites that deliver the TV feed in all of its multicamera glory. Lewinton says the KLipcorp analysis suggests that there were between 500,000 and 750,000 pirate viewers of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight in the U.K. and Europe.

Overall, Lewinton says, piracy is growing. “Compared to 5 years ago, when piracy was at lower levels, the issue is material,” he says. “Our data suggests the impact is mostly with the younger demographic.”

Which is all the more reason for rightsholders to figure out how to get live sports content to viewers via OTT for a reasonable price, because the pirates are already prepared for a rematch.

This article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Streaming Media as "The Sweet Science of Piracy."

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