The Great MMA Streaming Debacle: Is Anti-Piracy Counterproductive?

RIP r/MMAStreams!

Despite the UFCs best effort to shut down the Reddit based streaming community it hasn’t yet managed to signal a death-knell to the ever-growing illegal MMA streaming industry. As the UFC spend their resources on taking down places like r/MMAStreams, a multitude of other shady streaming sites have just sprouted up in the absence. There’s still high demand for free alternatives and so the market delivers them. But in the modern era where the average consumer has access to high-speed broadband and possess the necessary IT skills to easily find an illegal stream, you must ask whether it’s really worth the UFCs time and money to remove and shut down these sites, or is there perhaps a better solution where everyone can win?

With the UFC making the shift to ESPN this year and with the company’s insistence on keeping the PPV price tag of $60 the same, it means that for the American consumer it’ll cost roughly $780 to watch all the fights per year, and that’s not even factoring in the money that’s needed to pay for regular ESPN which shows the occasional mid-tier card or the annual price of the UFCs own fight pass which has a large Netflix-esque catalogue containing all the previous events, and it also shows the fight pass prelim portion of cards.

To be a hard-core MMA fan it’ll likely cost you near $1000 a year just to follow the sport’s biggest promotion, and there’s an abundance of other promotions out there like Bellator, ONE Championship & Rizin FF that are all appealing to hard-core fans but these promotions are too locked behind even more paywalls. To be a super hardcore it’ll cost upwards of thousands of dollars just to watch everything that’s appealing.

Because of the asinine asking price to follow the sport, in the olden days many MMA fans had to resort to shadier methods; for a while fans watched some of the sports biggest moments through torrented MP4 files taken from ripped DVDs or by exchanging DVDs through friends. Some people even got very lucky by knowing a local guy who sold pirate DVDs and could source some UFC. In the modern day, things aren’t as different as they used to be as fans now turn to places Reddit, Discord and even Twitter to source illegal live streams of fights.

What hasn’t changed though, is the UFCs iron-fist policy on these streams and their reluctance to innovate or re-shape their approach to modern digital media. Their strictness and total intolerance means that they waste a lot of their own time, money and effort on taking down things like Twitter gifs, Reddit posts and they’re known to remove entire YouTube channels just for using a few seconds of old fight footage. These different outlets that the UFC remove, in actuality only help grow the UFCs business as these independent content creators bring more eye-balls to the product and give the UFC more exposure and help bring in ’casual fans’.

Take the popular MMA Social hub ‘MMA On Point’ or the now nuked YouTube channel ‘JF Combat’ as examples, JF Combat built up an impressive 100,000+ subscriber channel which created funny highlight videos that promoted and brought publicity to a bunch of fighters on the UFC roster who previously would have gone un-promoted by the UFC. Instead of the UFC encouraging this type of content creation and fan creativity or being happy that their product was being marketed and showcased to millions of potential viewers, they thought it best to take JF Combat down in the name of ‘Copyright Theft’.

In doing so, the UFC does not encourage people to pay $1000 yearly for their product but they instead make the consumer loathe them. MMA On Point too is unable to use any sort of fight footage in their regular educational YouTube video essays that garner millions upon millions of views. If the UFC were to help support and encourage these independent entities instead of wasting their resources shutting them down, and by encouraging independent content creation it could help get more people emotionally invested in the sport to a point where they are willing to commit the $60 to pay for a PPV.

This hypothesis I’ve put forward isn’t just hypothetical though, as many different researchers support the claim that anti-piracy measures are totally counter-productive for business. To stop piracy on the internet, is essence to stop a leak by putting a bucket down and catching the run-off water. As Indiana University researcher Antonio Kim puts it:

“When information goods are sold to consumers via a retailer, in certain situations, a moderate level of piracy seems to have a surprisingly positive impact on the profits of the manufacturer and the retailer while, at the same time, enhancing consumer welfare,”

All research by Kim and others seem to indicate that a more lenient copyright policy means both the consumer and seller will be better off in the long-term. Though Kim and his fellow researchers aren’t advocating for a total piracy leniency, as he told VICE in 2016:

“Our results do not imply that the legal channel should, all of a sudden, start actively encouraging piracy. The implication is simply that, situated in a real-world context, our manufacturer and retailer should recognize that a certain level of piracy or its threat might actually be beneficial and should, therefore, exercise some moderation in their anti-piracy efforts.”

The research by Kim and his colleagues is highly unlikely to lead to any sort of UFC policy change as the UFCs video content is typically moderated and controlled by ESPN.

This is why we’ve seen such a rise in DMCA takedown notices this year, ESPN are struggling to sell PPVs and thus they’ve went out of their way to remove the pirated content in hopes it’ll up the number of PPV buys. Since doing so, the PPV buys have gotten better but it’s as a result of improvements to their ESPN+ streaming service. The increase in buys has nothing to do with their increase of DMCA takedowns being distributed. ESPN will go out and remove the pirated content and provide a platform for viewing the fights legally, whilst the UFC create the product which ESPN then flogs and takes a cut of the revenue. So it’s understandable why ESPN want to stop the illegal sharing of their product. But is ESPNs / UFCs strict-policy really worth it, as most academia and researchers believe that a lenient policy helps everyone grow?

The MMA streaming debacle that’s going on right now in the MMA community is quite fascinating as content creators get hit with numerous takedowns for promoting the product and the UFC and ESPN waste tons of resources on eliminating piracy sites and illegal streaming community’s. The solution appears to be that the UFC should become more lenient on content moderation and allow independent creators to flourish. As for the illegal streaming issue, it would be wise for the UFC to take a more laisse-faire libertarian approach. Instead of the UFC spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on eliminating illegal sites, they should invest the money in trying to make the product more appealing and cheaper, thus bringing in more views. If the UFC managed to decrease the PPV price tag and make the services more accessible to the consumers, their revenue could increase ten-fold as a result.

The UFC eliminating these community’s and streaming sites is just a waste of time, as when one closes another ten open in the place of the dead community. The UFC must embrace modern technology and independent creation instead of trying their best to shut it down.