The internet’s home for pirated feeds of live NBA games, r/nbastreams, was shut down Monday, following repeated violations of Reddit's copyright infringement policy.
While Adam Silver has earned a reputation as the internet-friendly commissioner—”No sports league has embraced the power of social media as much as the NBA,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in March—the league confirmed its involvement in r/nbastreams’s demise through a statement. “We work with our vendors to identify and protect against pirated live streams of our games. Platforms shutting down repeat infringers is critical to this process.”
Silver uses a food analogy to explain the league’s philosophy—it’s happy to let potential fans snack on free clips and highlights, with the expectation they’ll pay for the full meal of tickets and premium broadcasts down the road. “We encourage our fans to snack before meals,” Silver said in 2015. “But the meals are pristine and the meals live behind a paywall."
The NBA was aware of the subreddit going back three seasons, and has long filed limited takedown requests during marquee events like the All-Star Game and playoffs. Entering this season, with the community more popular than ever, the league pushed Reddit more aggressively. By the time the site removed /r/nbastreams, the league’s takedown requests had reached into the thousands, with a flurry during Game 6 of the NBA Finals possibly leading to the final result. Officials also lobbied Reddit to see the page as not simply a home for NBA fans (like the 2.5 million member /r/nba), but instead a dedicated hub for promoting stolen content.
This year, Reddit has eliminated other groups as well. r/soccerstreams was scrapped in January, and r/mmastreams met a similar fate last month. In each instance, users often respond by pointing fingers, blaming writers or influencers for publicizing their presumed-to-be-secret communities. In the MMA group’s case, it was former fighter Brendan Schaub drawing fans’ ire.
“I don’t think they [the UFC] realize the level of pure professionalism these dark web dudes have to these links,” he reportedly said in April, not long before the subreddit was banned. “I’m not gonna say I did watch it illegally, I’m not gonna say I didn’t. When I clicked on that link, that thing was better quality than I had [expletive]…ever seen.”
Of course, it’s naive to think midway through 2019 top sports executives remained unaware of Reddit’s illegal streaming networks, particularly given the mainstream press coverage they’ve received. Instead, the pages existed in a gray state, with individual posts being taken down but the communities persisting. A confluence of factors, however, may have upset that balance.
For one, pirated streams have improved in quality and reliability, leading communities to swell towards 500,000 users. In an uncertain media market, that many potential customers is too many to forfeit, especially now that leagues have digital products to offer consumers looking to go legit. Plus, improved tracking technology has made leagues and networks more confident in their ability to diminish the practice. The goal is to disrupt black market audiences, though enforcers are aware knocking out a subreddit (or punishing someone for creating the illicit feed) won’t eliminate the problem.
The EPL learned that after r/soccerstreams went down, only to be replaced by new communities on Reddit, individual web pages, and chat platform Discord. The success soccer and basketball stakeholders have had in disrupting pirating groups will likely lead to similar pushes from NFL and MLB headquarters, followed by planned responses from illegal streaming networks, and a new round of takedown requests.
As part of Reddit’s policy, subreddit moderators are warned before their sites are ultimately banned. That means that leaders have time to prepare backup plans and alert their communities. “We're trying our very best to continue bringing you all high-quality ways to watch NBA games,” a bot account posted in the Discord group chat set up as a new home for former r/nbastreams diehards this week, “And of course: we will never ever charge for access.”
The NBA’s enforcement team is already monitoring the channel.