How live cricket streams have democratised the way we see the game
The controversial area of online cricket streaming espouses two polar arguments- one that views illegal streams under the spectrum of piracy, and therefore as a blatant violation of intellectual property rights; the other sees it as a form of free access, or democratised access.
In countries with sizeable Indian immigrant population, and no TV channels for cricket broadcast, live internet streaming often comes to the rescue. Indian community halls in these non-cricket playing countries, usually install projector screens for the live stream, which the fans can enjoy over chai and samosas.
They try to recreate the stadium experience, and many instances have been reported, where Indians and Pakistani fans clashed following Indo-Pak matches.
In countries where there are large Indian expat communities, like Canada and USA, premium channels do offer live broadcasting of cricket matches, but often at exorbitant rates.
It then becomes natural for the cricket lovers to view the live proceedings on their laptops, smartphones or tablets, courtesy live match streaming on various websites.
Not only the NRIs, live streaming also works as a respite for the commuters stuck in traffic jams and students stuck in boring lectures. Whereas, till about a decade earlier, students used to smuggle radio-transistors to classrooms to make sure they don’t miss the match proceedings, now the smartphones have almost completely replaced the radio transistors, as cricket enthusiasts can not only hear, but view Virat Kohli hit that square drive.
A grave threat to hegemony of the broadcasters and boards
If this sounds like a win-win situation for all, then what could possibly be the problems with it?
The official broadcasters have the same problem with live streaming that the film production houses have with online free torrents. TV Sports channels pay insane amounts of money to buy the official broadcasting rights of a series or tournament. Online live streaming websites eat into the share of these TV stations, without paying for a fraction of the sum.
Talking to BBC, John Perera of the ECB said that if people continued to watch matches on illegal live streams, there would be a lack of money in the sport. "So people who are actually not paying for access to the streams are diddling cricket."
Giles Clarke, chairman of the ECB considered the illegal live stream websites as “the biggest danger facing the game”. In 2012, ECB’s official broadcasters closed down as many as 700 illegal websites during the summer season in India.
Star TV, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, bought the rights to broadcast Indian cricket from 2012-2018 at a mammoth sum of 3851 crores (approximately $750 million) covering 96 matches. This was the first time that the deal included mobile and internet rights. This means that Star would be paying approximately 40 crores per match.
A pocket-friendly alternative
To view the live broadcast on set-top boxes, the viewers have to cough up somewhere between Rs 30-50 per month (plus the regular fees) to subscribe to the sports channel, clearly making it out of reach for some. The excluded chunk includes the perpetually low-on-cash hostellers who have no other option but to watch the live stream on their laptops.
Harish Hiranandani, 21, a techie from Ahmedabad says, “I follow cricket religiously, but since the sports packs are quite expensive, I follow the matches online. The slow buffering can sometimes be a hassle, but at least it is good for the pocket. Even when I was studying in Jamaica, online streaming websites (only illegal ones available back then) were the only source of watching matches. We didn’t really have an option.”
Neeraj Kaushik, a PT teacher in Srijan School Delhi realises the benefits of live streaming, but also highlights its severe limitations. “We usually bank upon the live streams to check scores in the staff room, but mainly because we don’t have any other option. When I’m at home, I usually prefer watching the live broadcast on TV, even if it means paying extra. The match on the live stream websites usually lag by an over or takes too much time to buffer. The audio-video quality is also poor.”
Sometimes it is the sole option
While it has made life easier for millions of cricket lovers worldwide, it has brought trouble for a few others.
Alternative Cricket, a cricket podcast website started by Nishant Joshi, which has above 70,000 followers on twitter, had its account suspended by the social networking site for sharing a link to a live stream website.
Nishant was banned by the BCCI, as they claimed that they were losing revenue because of the link that @AltCricket shared.
His only fault being that he had just replied to a follower who asked where to watch the match, as his country had no official broadcast. A lot was speculated about his disappearance, including political angles, and he was brought back by twitter on a massive demand.
In his podcast, following this fiasco, he said, “For the past five years, I’ve been in the Czech Republic, a country where there is simply no option at all to watch international cricket legally, for the common man, let alone a student. Over the past five years, I’ve been forced to watch a great deal of cricket on these streams that are deemed illegal by many cricket boards, but it is not out of choice – it is out of necessity, and out of my love for cricket.”
During the 2015 ICC World Cup, OSN, the leading pay-TV network went on a war footing to eradicate illegal streaming sites and managed to successfully root out 60 percent of the illegal links. For it’s anti-piracy crusade, it collaborated with Viaccess-Orca, a world leader in anti-piracy protection, using it’s Eye On Piracy technology. They also managed to interrupt around 50 percent of the illegal viewing.
Impossible to control the net
The broadcasters and cricket boards could go after a few sites, but they couldn’t catch them’ all. Just as the music record companies and movie production houses couldn’t control the net after repeated attempts, the cricket broadcasters could see the scarce options stare at them in the face.
The nature of the new technology is such that it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals, groups, or even governments to control it.
Earlier, it was just the unofficial websites that would offer live streaming, but soon the sports broadcasting giants recognised its potential and jumped into the fray, catering to the insatiable appetite for cricket in India. The official sports channel began live streaming of their match and promoted it with full zeal.
A major benefit of the official broadcasters streaming live matches online is the improved quality of the pictures, as the matches are transmitted live in HD.
In a groundbreaking move, IPL in 2014, decided to broadcast all its matches live on YouTube.
It didn’t just have an effect for the domestic fans, but also the cricket fans outside India. Realising that the audiences were shunning their hefty pay per view, and watching online live stream, ESPN in 2011 brought the rights for exclusive coverage of ICC tournaments (World Cup and Champions League T20) from the period 2012-2015 in USA. The rights also included the online and mobile rights, and ESPN streamed live matches on its websites. Apart from catering to the underserved South Asian cricket fans in the states, the move also helped in expanding the reach and popularity of the sport in America.
But the ESPN is still charging insane amounts of fee from cricket fans in the states. It charged about a $100 for the finals of the 2015 Cricket World Cup. And in Canada, it was $179.99 for all the 49 matches. These amounts are higher than the cost of tickets to watch the match in stadiums. Such prices virtually render the illegal streams as the only option available for the cricket enthusiasts outside India.
The state in India is much better because audiences have access to free legal streams, and the national broadcast channel Doordarshan broadcasts crucial ODI matches involving India for free.
Today, ESPN-Star Sports promote their live streaming apps and website as much as their TV channel.
This has revolutionised, and truly democratised cricket broadcasting, by making it available to a larger cross section of the society, and that too, free of cost.