We are in a golden age of illegal sports streaming and it’s showing us how copyright infringement can result in better content
Let me tell you my story of woe as Toronto Raptor Fan. I’m not talking about how we alienated and embarrassed ourselves by turning against the greatest player we’ve ever had when he didn’t live up to ridiculous standards of being superhuman. Or how our chip-on-the shoulder, misplaced overconfidence and meme-level playoff choking has us considered the most paranoid and insecure fan-base in the league. No, I’m talking how the NBA (National Basketball Association) and Canadian broadcasting companies have made it almost f***ing impossible to legally watch Toronto Raptor games in Canada.
Typically to watch any NBA game legally you have two options. You can pay $20-$30 a month (depending if you just want to watch one team play or all the teams) for the NBA’s streaming service, League Pass, or you can watch it via a TV Cable/Satellite Subscription. The League Pass option seems like a good one at first, but nope, League Pass ‘blacks out’ all local games because local broadcasting companies have exclusive rights to televise the content - i.e. All Toronto Raptor games for Canadian viewers. Essentially League Pass allows you to watch every other NBA team, except for that one you are regionally close to, who are OFTEN the ones you cheer for…. Oy.
So what about getting cable to watch the games? Well, despite attempts in Canada to set up affordable and basic cable packages -where users don’t need to pay for excess content besides what they need- you still need to pay a considerable amount to get access to every channel that Toronto Raptor games air on. I’m talking over $100 a month. That’s what I pay right now. It is ridiculous. And this price was the result of much negotiation on my end! NBA league pass has already set a price-point that access to all of one team’s games per month should be $20. Shelling out over 5 times that is not something most people can afford. It’s definitely an amount I could not have afforded while in school or right after school, but can only afford now due to a salary that puts me in the top 10% income bracket.
This is why every Raptor Fan I know watches illegal streams. These numbers jump even higher for soccer fans I know, who often can’t find the games they want to watch on Canadian TV in the first place. The data lines up with my anecdotal experience: 54% of millennials have watched illegal sports streams and a third watch them regularly. It’s the status quo right now. And guess what? Besides the ongoing moral quandary of knowing you are breaking copyright law and feeling guilty about it, it’s f***ing awesome.
The only way I was able to watch the 2016 NBA finals, now widely considered maybe the best NBA Finals ever, was thanks to someone who has now become a legend in NBA’s online fandom: Velocityraps. That hyperlink there is probably the only online article you can find about him, but this just a quick twitter search for his name will show you what I mean.
“velocityraps is one of the modern heroes of humanity”
“ velocityraps is a modern day robin hood”
“ velocityraps is everyone’s homie”
“ my first born son shall be named velocityraps”
Velocityraps was just a dude in his mid-20s in Egypt who spent time and effort making sure he had best possible, always free, stream of every NBA game that anyone could access. He took donations to pay for his time and web-hosting, and people were so happy with being able to finally access these games, that a decent amount of money was flowing in. $15–20k a year. This is a fascinating revelation about illegal streamers. Even though people can acquire content for free from them, they still give them money.
What I loved about Velocityraps was how I could access it from anywhere I had Wifi and on any device without needing to login. I didn’t need to worry about ongoing payments and a company always taking money off my credit card. Watching basketball was a leisure activity that I couldn’t justify to myself spending money on when I needed that money other things. Velocity gave me the chance to relax and enjoy. Gave me the moments of self-care I needed, without that ever -present price tag floating above it. The man was a hero.
He doesn’t post anymore. He could just be taking a break or the copyright police might have finally caught up to him. Godspeed wherever he is. Without illegal streamers like him the whole NBA internet culture probably would not even exist. I’m talking NBA Twitter, Reddit, Facebook groups, and meme pages. If you’re into sports and ‘very online’, you’ll know what I am talking about. There’s a massive amount of discussion, analysis, highlight sharing (of both awesome and funny stuff), and inside-jokes around every sport event. It’s a lot of fun and it allows you to actively engage with it all.
My Raptor fandom has grown over the years as I’ve followed more NBA focused accounts on Twitter and started browsing r/nba and r/torontoraptors daily. I care more about the players, about their relationships with each other, and know more about the sport of basketball in general thanks to in-depth breakdowns from journalists and fans alike. For so many fans, who actively take part in NBA online culture, the only route to access NBA games is via these illegal streamers. You can see the proof of this status quo clearly on social media. For instance, it’s now a common thing to joke and comment about halftime shows and filler content in stadiums that you see on illegal streams instead of the commercials you would see with a TV package.
This flourishing online culture is also directly what has led to the NBA booming in the last couple years and increasing their fanbase among younger viewers which other Sports Leagues are struggling to do. Despite the mess they’ve created with exclusive licenses for broadcasting companies that don’t allow a a large part of their fanbase to watch games legally, the NBA has taken a more progressive approach to copyright infringement that has allowed them to flourish.
For instance, the NBA is one of the most lax Sports Leagues when it comes to video highlight sharing on social media. Other Leagues — like the NFL — have cracked down on highlight sharing, but the current NBA Commissioner believes that usage matters just as much as sales do and that greater fan engagement drives other forms of revenue like live game sales. I think he is right. As my fan engagement has grown because of illegal streams and highlight videos on social media, so has the amount of money I spend on raptors gear and game tickets.
The best website out there right now for illegally streaming NBA basketball is Reddit’s r/nbastreams. It’s the illegal stream posting platform that made Velocityraps so big. It’s become very popular in the last couple years, climbing from just 40k subscribers in early 2016 to 419k today (You don’t have to subscribe to access the website and streams, so likely the number of users is much higher. I’ve used it for years and never subscribed). Toronto Raptors streams are one of the top most viewed streams. There’s no way the NBA isn’t aware of it. Yet they’ve taken no legal action against it. Has the NBA decided that the benefits of letting it exist are worth any potential loss of income they may receive?
There’s been some rumblings in the illegal sports streaming world lately. Reddit’s even more popular illegal soccer streaming site, r/soccerstreams, recently announced that they’ve reached a ‘critical mass’ of users and so are shutting down because of anti-piracy measures taken by soccer leagues like the Premier League. Like most piracy websites though, this will turn into a game of whack-a-mole as even the post on r/soccerstreams announcing they are shutting down directs users to other websites to access illegal soccer streams. My sympathy goes out to soccer fans who I know use this site. I’ve talked to one of them and he’s going to try the other sites. If those don’t work, “I guess I’ll be watching a lot less soccer”. I doesn’t seem like the Premier League is coming out on top here.
I’m reminded of when the CEO of Time Warner (who own HBO) commented that knowing Game of Thrones was the most pirated show in the world was better than winning an Emmy. Piracy isn’t just a consequence of having a popular content, it also is what makes content popular. The NBA seems to have embraced this and hopefully they leave r/nbastreams be. There are still so many barriers to accessing digital media and until those get fully resolved allowing piracy is a good way to build a fanbase.