UEFA & Friend MTS: Securing the world’s most premium content

Just like that, IBC 2023 is well and truly behind us. After a packed weekend of talks, meetings and networking opportunities, we wanted to give those who couldn’t attend our exclusive Fireside Chat with UEFA a chance to find out about their content security strategy and implementation. Read on for our interview between Chris White, Friend MTS Operations Director, and Diego Dabrio, UEFA’s Senior Anti-Piracy Expert.

First of all, Diego, tell us who UEFA are and what your business environment looks like.

UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) is the governing body of European football. We are acting as the umbrella for the Football Association of 55 national associations across Europe and Central Asia.

Our mission is very broad, we deal with all important issues in Europe while supporting our national associations and partners to promote the well-being and development of football at different levels.

We organise competitions and the way we generate revenues is diverse. We have sponsorships and ticketing sales but media rights is one of the best and most efficient ways for us to generate money that we redistribute to the different stakeholders involved in the competitions.

We currently organise 19 competitions, such as the Champions League, Women’s Champions League, Euro’s, Women’s Euro’s, Nation’s League, and Women’s Nation’s League, but also under 19, under 21 competitions. We have media partners literally all over the world trying to make our content available in every country in the world.

In terms of size, that’s a little bit tricky, we have competitions that are played yearly, but then we have competitions which are played from time to time. For club competitions we sell in cycles of 3 years and for national team competitions it’s 4 years. In the 2021-2022 season the amount that was distributed to European football (to clubs and national associations) from the revenues that we generated from the selling of media rights was over €3 billion.

“In the 2021-2022 season the amount that was distributed to European football from the revenues that we generated from the selling of media rights was over €3 billion.”

It’s very valuable content indeed. What does your role as a Senior Content Protection Expert involve at UEFA?

I’m the go-to person on all content protection and anti-piracy issues, leading our content protection strategy. I regularly liaise with media partners, rights holders, all industry players, and relevant internet players including social media platforms. I’m responsible for running our content protection program and also managing litigation when required.

Why is piracy protection such an important topic for UEFA? And what is your strategic approach for handling these threats?

UEFA is a well-known name in the sports ecosystem. We organise some of the most successful sporting events. The commercial rights for competitions are handled on a centralised basis, and the revenues that are generated are distributed between different stakeholders: national associations, the teams participating in competitions, as well as those not participating, on a solidarity basis. Ultimately we support the development and promotion of football at all levels down to the grassroots level.

If piracy is left uncontrolled, it’s putting the whole football ecosystem at risk, not only the commercial model that we have in place but also this very important solidarity function. That’s why we take it extremely seriously.

“If piracy is left uncontrolled, it’s putting the whole football ecosystem at risk, not only the commercial model that we have in place but also this very important solidarity function. That’s why we take it extremely seriously.”

I joined UEFA in 2019 after a few years in La Liga but the first anti-piracy strategy was put in place in 2004 for the Euro 2004, so almost twenty years ago. Piracy has changed a lot, but it’s something that has been on our roadmap for a long time. It is something that we are trying to keep in our DNA.

I see, it’s something you keep going to support grassroots football. So, what tools and processes do you use to combat piracy?

We have a proven strategy based on four principles: disruption, communication, cooperation and change.

  • Disruption. We need to have the best program in place that is able to disrupt illegal viewers’ experience and to disrupt illegal pirate activities. It’s important for us to have partners that are able to evolve with the market, with the anti-piracy landscape and try to be as efficient as possible in disrupting the illicit viewers’ experience and the illegal activities.
  • Communication. We are explaining what we do, how we do it, even communicating with fans through campaigns and speaking with media partners, and understanding what their concerns are. They are our hands and eyes in territories. We are a global organisation, but we cannot see what’s happening in every corner of the world so that’s why it’s important to have the input and the feedback from our media partners as well.
  • Cooperation. We need to cooperate with all key players, internet players, social media platforms, search engines, all the rights holders, all the industry players, to try to see whether joint action can be taken.
  • Change. There is a change in terms of social acceptance of piracy where some used to think that piracy is a victimless crime. Bringing change in the legal framework is important. And also being able to change, to mutate. We are in an ever-changing environment, you cannot say that you know everything. For example, piracy in 2004 has nothing to do with today’s piracy. You need to be changing. You need to have vendors, systems, methodologies and approaches that are able to change.

“Piracy in 2004 has nothing to do with today’s piracy. You need to be changing. You need to have vendors, systems, methodologies and approaches that are able to change.”

In terms of operations, we have a sophisticated end-to-end system. In 2020 we ran an RFP process, and we appointed leaders in content protection. Friend MTS was appointed to cover all internet-based platforms during the 2021-2024 cycle (social media is covered by Athletia).

There are protection measures for three types of content: live, non-live and apps content.

  • Live content. To protect live content we have pre-match, in-match, and post-match measures. We are looking for sources of illicit content before the match window to enforce upon it during the game. The post-match measures relate to social media in particular where clips, highlights, etc. can be posted without permission. For match day enforcement, we are crawling, we have fingerprinting verification, and we enforce accordingly. We implement blocking orders that we have currently in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. We ingest our feed into Facebook Rights Manager and YouTube Content ID and also to some media partners to increase the ability of the tool to find more infringing content. We also make sure that we don’t ask to take down the content which has the right to be there.
  • Non-live content. These are measures around the match day, things that have been flagged during the match that are not possible to enforce upon in real-time. Particularly working with search engines to de-index, delist and demote illicit URLs. And also disrupting through working with payment providers, domain registrars, etc.
  • Apps content. There are measures to remove illegal apps from the most popular stores, like the Google Play store, Apple store, etc.

What has been the most effective measure? What has proved to be truly disruptive to pirate operations?

For us, the live window is key. Blocking orders are powerful in fighting piracy in real time. However, as a global organisation with content in many different countries, we need to build momentum for blocking orders to happen in all the territories.

“For us, the live window is key. Blocking orders are powerful in fighting piracy in real time.”

To do that, you need to be persuading the court, you need to be speaking to the ISPs to see whether they’re aligned with the idea of blocking or not. You need a combination of elements that is not always possible in all markets. Unless you have a prevalent market, implementing blocking orders is like putting on a sticky plaster – the content is not available in one territory but it will be available in another.

Having said that, in real time blocking orders are very, very effective. Particularly since we have been working with you, we always try to go the extra mile and find a way to fine-tune that and make it more efficient.

There is no system that is 100% effective against piracy. So for me, it’s a combination of different elements, putting efficient measures in place, keeping an eye on what’s going on and what might happen in the future. Cooperating and engaging with all the different partners involved is important. This holistic approach is the only way you can have an impact in protecting your content. It’s like making a cocktail, you need to put in different ingredients.

As you mentioned, piracy evolves. How do you ensure that you’re always keeping ahead of the game?

It’s important to have the ability to be flexible and embrace this ever-changing environment. Tiktok, for instance, wasn’t a big deal three years ago. Now it’s becoming the third most infringing platform. Maybe ten years ago IPTV services were not a big deal, they are now. We have a lot of mechanisms to be able to react in time and be ready to embrace this ever-changing environment and try to do it in a more efficient way.

Looking forward, what do you see as the future challenges and opportunities for content owners like UEFA?

In terms of challenges, I don’t have particular concerns but over the last few years, due to some changes in competitions, for example, in our flagship competition, Champions League, we’ve been observing an increasing trend in the number of infringements that we are detecting, enforcing and taking down. Next year from 2024 until 2027 there will be more matches, so our content protection program is going to be enhanced to try to protect all the content, not just major competitions. The volume is going to be one of the challenges. However, as I said, I’m not particularly concerned. I’m confident we are set up to tackle this in an efficient manner.

Probably the single biggest challenge that we are facing is changing the legal framework. That’s really frustrating and this is one of the things that we are trying to fight very intensively with European Commission. There was a recommendation approved in May this year, there will be a follow-up period between September/October 2023 to November 2025. And I see this as an opportunity because it’s been acknowledged by the European Parliament and European Commission that piracy of sports and live content is different.

This recommendation is best practices and not binding but it’s a valuable step. Based on the templates that have been approved, the rights holders and media partners have the opportunity to provide data and illustrate that they cannot cooperate with players who are ignoring their notices day in and day out. And we issued 1.8 million notices during the last season. I see this as an opportunity and together we will be assembling the data to hopefully have the legislative changes.

What about business opportunities? Do you see a fundamental shift in how you’re going to approach that?

We are trying to make our content as available as possible in multi device. The media partners are doing a fantastic job in terms of making the content protected and bringing it to territories available in all devices and different formats. And my marketing colleagues are doing a great job making the content more appealing.

From the content protection side, we push hard for things to change and fighting for a healthy environment. At the end of the day, all these piracy activities are not helping anybody. It’s something that I think the Commission is starting to understand.

Thank you Diego, it’s been a great and insightful session!

If you’d like to find out how Friend MTS can help protect your content, get in touch with one of our team today.
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