The Premier League’s crackdown on social media is about policing access to football

The corporate interests that run football are trying to stamp out social media and illegal livestreaming. But this will come with a higher price than they realise, writes Mark Bergfeld

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Who doesn’t remember Robin van Persie’s gravity-defying goal against Spain at this year’s FIFA World Cup? Oh, you didn’t see it? Don’t worry – you can simply go watch it on YouTube, or find a Vine, or an animated GIF somewhere on the internet. Go ahead and google it. There’s even a version with Van Persie flying round the world in a Superman cape.

There’s million other soccer Vines and YouTube videos on the web, knocked together by fans and posted online. The Twitter account @FootballVines alone counts more than 500,000 followers.

But the English Premier League is cracking down on all this. Last month it announced it would seek to ban social media uploads. This came only few days after the Sunday Times and the Sun signed deals to show the goals before anyone else. The team behind @FootballVines was quick to label this a “scare tactic”. But it is more than that – it’s an attack on all those priced out of the corporate temple of modern football.

The Premier League is protecting images for the same reason that Big Pharma bans copycat versions of HIV medication. They don’t want ordinary folk to access this stuff without paying. It’s as simple as that. After all, big business has never been a fan of democracy or equality when there’s money to be made.

Now with the season in full swing, the copyright crackdown is taking on more sinister dimensions. Manchester United has banned all laptops and tablets from its Old Trafford stadium. The club quotes “security” sources warning of the risk of terrorist attacks. But this is not about terrorism. The real fear is that user-generated photo and video material will circulate on the internet before media channels have made their buck.

Television rights are a billion dollar business and Manchester United is the most televised club of the Premier League, if not the world. The 2010-11 season saw the club make over £60 million in domestic television earnings for the first time. This is reason enough for the Glazer clan to equip Old Trafford with an airport-style security check.

It is a move that they will come to regret. The New York Yankees tried this in 2010 and backtracked two years later. The fact is that YouTube videos and Vines have become an intrinsic part of the culture of football, and other sports, and there is no turning back from this.

There is a wider issue here – accessibility. These social media clips render the people’s game accessible to those who cannot afford extortionate ticket prices or a Sky Sports subscription. Fans share these videos via Bluetooth on their mobile phones. They make their way into Brazilian favelas and have even spread soccer fever to American audiences.

Greater Manchester Police recently raided an illegal Premier League streaming hub and shut it down. Illegal streaming costs the television industry £10 million every year. But this is peanuts compared to the £3 billion that Sky Sports and BT Sport paid for the right to broadcast Premier League football until the end of the 2015-16 season. And for football fans in the Global South and young people barred from pubs, streaming services are the only way to watch their favourite players.

The Premier League would do well to look across the Atlantic. The National Basketball Association maintains a high quality YouTube channel on which European fans like myself can enjoy the latest dunks, moves and passes while eating our morning cereals. MLB.tv offers a similar service for baseball. Yet the Premier League does nothing but sit on its cash.

Football is being disfigured by the race for titles, the competition for players and the global market for TV rights. The fans understand this instinctively: the Premier League, the clubs or any football association should not have a monopoly on “the people’s game”.

Uploading content and watching streamed games is no different to people sneaking into the stadium to watch a game two generations ago. As fans we should welcome and defend this culture of sharing on social media. And those who own the game should learn to adapt to this new reality rather than launching crackdowns on those whose passion is the basis for their industry.

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