Time To Call Time On Geo-Based Sports Restrictions

Ever wondered why American Netflix users have a better range of shows to choose from than we do? Or why sports fans in other countries can watch a Saturday Premier League match live as it's broadcast, when in the UK we can’t? Ever frustrated that you can watch an on-demand service in the UK, but not while you’re in a hotel room in a different country?

At the heart of all this is the issue of rights, and who owns them. In today’s ever-more connected world, it’s an area that has become increasingly contentious as rights-holders seek to safeguard their investments in the face of the consumer’s demand to watch content whenever and wherever they choose.

Once upon a time, it made sense for rights to be sold on a country-by-country or territory-by-territory basis. Those who paid to acquire rights would then be able to broadcast that content in their respective region and, as the Internet became more prominent within the consumer’s media consumption behaviours, most began adopting geo-restrictions to ensure that their content was only accessible to internet users in a particular place.

The problem is that it has become so easy to circumvent such restrictions. With tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) being easy and cheap to access, as well as widely available, it can take a consumer just a few clicks to mask their location and start accessing content which has been geo-protected for users in a different country.

Although VPN usage is still believed by some to be quite a niche area, our global data from 34 markets shows that over three in 10 online adults have used one, with the top reason being to access better entertainment content. Even in the UK, where the library of material legitimately available to watch is relatively good, it’s just over two in 10 who have done it. In fact, identify-masking has become so common that Netflix had to change its stance on the issue to keep rights-holders happy, stating explicitly that attempts to hide your identity were against its terms of use.

Despite this, it’s still relatively easy to spoof or hide your location and gain access to some of the world’s biggest content services. Purchase a VPN with a dedicated IP address in the US (rather than one which uses a range of IP addresses) and before too long you’ll find your way into many of the content services which are supposed to be reserved for US residents.

But it’s not just the Netflix’s of the world for whom this trend can create a real headache. According to research done by GlobalWebIndex and GeoComply among over 500 sports fans in the UK, almost 4 in 10 were aware that they could fake their internet location in order to watch live sports or highlights packages not available in their own country. What’s more, 7% of these fans admitted to doing this, with football being the most popular sport and the desire to watch 3pm Premier League games not being broadcast in the UK coming out as the top reason. And in reality, these numbers could actually be slightly bigger if we acknowledge that not everyone using this type of approach would necessarily want to admit it.

Although it’s only a very small percentage of the sports audience that are using tools such as VPNs at the moment, it’s not hard to see the implications that they bring for broadcasters and rights-holders. While 7% might sound modest, it translates to a significant number of people who are connecting to services in other countries to watch football. And given that packages available to overseas viewers are often much cheaper than those for UK residents, we have to expect more people will begin doing this as awareness of such tools and services grows. Particularly telling here is that, among those sports fans who we interviewed, well over half said they would consider switching from their current TV supplier to an international vendor, while one in two said they would seriously think about abandoning TV suppliers altogether to watch all content online.

It’s easy to think of VPN users as content-pirates who are looking for a free ticket. But actually, our research makes it very clear that VPN users are more likely than the average Internet user to pay for content (being 40% more likely to pay for a movie/TV streaming service, for example, and 60% ahead for paying for music-streaming services). For many of these individuals, then, the issue is one of access, not of money. Many of them are happy to part with their cash for the right type of content, it’s just that geo-restrictions and rights-distributions are preventing them from having this opportunity. Add to this the fact that new Internet users over the next decade will come predominantly from emerging markets -- where the provision of content tends to be poorest -- and this problem is only going to get worse.

Of course, in some sectors or contexts there is a need to limit access to certain people, such as the English Football Association’s point of principle on limiting the broadcast of Premier League games in the UK on a Saturday afternoon, in order to encourage fans to get out and play or watch their local team. In these instances, broadcasters need to employ technology that can guarantee accurate and robust geo-fencing, rather than just paying lip service to it as many currently are.

But as difficult as it may be, for many content providers where the principal issue is one of gathering revenue, the better way forward is surely to think about the ways in which they license and distribute content, questioning whether country- or region-restricted deals are still in line with the way the Internet and media consumption trends have evolved. Why put so much effort into stopping people from watching content when worldwide licensing deals could see them being monetized effectively?

In our ever-globalising world, isn’t it better to change your model to give the consumers what they want rather than forcing them to conform to an approach that sees many of them lose out?


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