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Piracy — specifically people streaming games that are supposed to be behind a pay wall — is already an issue for the NFL, boxing, UFC, and any other sport that charges a lot of money to watch their events. My dad, who is in his 60s and doesn’t know how to type, has figured out that he can watch every Steelers game and PPV fight for free if he checks enough shady streaming sites.

How do sports leagues deal with this? Remember, paid streaming is supposed to be a huge business for sports leagues in the next ten years, perhaps even big enough to replace some of the television deals that will inevitably get smaller or disappear as that business changes. MLB.tv is already a very popular product, and MLBAM is pushing it out in as many places as possible.

They need to use the Apple model of media: lower the price to the point where it’s easier to buy it than to pirate it. Watching Steelers games on justin.tv streams is annoying; the quality sucks, it goes in and out a lot, and half the time it gets shut down in the middle of the game once the NFL cops find it. But the NFL’s legal streaming package (which is only available to DirecTV subscribers, or people in Manhattan that can’t get DirecTV, such as myself) is prohibitively expensive — about $400, which comes out to $50 per game when you consider that half of the Steelers’ games are usually on in New York anyway. So we deal with the terrible service, and use NFL.com radio as a backup.

Compare that price to the other services we buy: NHL Center Ice, which is about $150, and MLB Extra Innings, which I believe went up to $200 last year. In other words, we would pay $50 less for both the NHL and MLB than we would for 8 Steelers games. If it was our only option, we’d probably do it — the Steelers are religion, after all. But it’s not our only option — we can watch those 8 games for free, albeit in a suboptimal way.

All the sports leagues, and ESPN for that matter, need to take note of this. Piracy is only going to become more prevalent in the coming years, as the quality and quantity improve. If you want to charge for your games, you need to recognize that you’re charging for convenience, not the games themselves, and it also helps to have value-add features like those you’ll find on MLB.tv (i.e. multiple games at once, highlights from other games, etc). Otherwise, you might as well give it away and pray the advertising dollars will be there.

Feedback? Write a comment, or e-mail the author at shawn(AT)squawkingbaseball.com

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