Foul play: millions of Europeans watch sporting events illegally and buy fake sports equipment costing manufacturers €850 million

13% of Maltese citizens accessed or streamed content from illegal online sources to watch sports, with 28% of youngsters aged 15-24 doing so


This year, Europe is the epicentre of all things sport. The world is gearing up to watch spectacular goals during the UEFA EURO 2024, photo finishes at the Tour de France and gold-medal-winning moments at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris.

But as Europeans prepare to tune into the biggest broadcast sporting events, millions of them may do so illegally. According to an EUIPO study on EU citizens’ perception, awareness, and behaviour, 12% of EU citizens had accessed or streamed content from illegal sources to watch sports. When it comes to youngsters age 15-24, more than a quarter (27%) admit to using illegal online channels to watch sports.

Executive Director of the EUIPO, João Negrão, said: "As we enjoy the thrill of competition this summer, it’s crucial to play fair, both for players on the field as well as for spectators at home. The IP rights behind these events protect and enhance our experiences as fans, support our athletes and inspire future European and world champions. By watching official broadcasts and buying licensed products, we ensure our beloved sports continue to thrive for generations to come."

Big events, big opportunity for fraud

Beyond the broadcast rights involved in major sporting events, intellectual property (IP) is everywhere: from the iconic Olympic rings and the names and likeness of top athletes, to the competitors’ sports gear and the official mascots and souvenirs of the events.

But where there’s money and millions of spectators and consumers, there is opportunity for fraudsters to profit. Illegal online streaming affects all types of content – including sporting events – and the EUIPO estimated that piracy across all media generates €1 billion in unlawful revenue annually.

The problem of live-event piracy is an existential one for the financing of sport. The revenues generated through IP rights are redistributed to the sports movement and athletes on the basis of solidarity. Emma Terho, chair of the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes' Commission, said during the EUIPO conference on combating online piracy of sport and other live events in October 2023.

"If fans watch live sports events via illegal streams, the whole solidarity funding model of the Olympic movement is put in jeopardy. Media rights would lose their value, and the media rightsholders would stop acquiring media rights with huge ramifications for the solidarity-funding model of the whole Olympic movement."

Besides sports broadcasting, the EU sports equipment sector suffers from €850 million in lost sales per year according to the EUIPO. This figure doesn’t include sportswear like fake football shirts and knockoff sports shoes, which represent a significant portion of the overall estimated €12 billion of clothing counterfeits in Europe per year.

Nearly half of youngsters illegally stream sports in some countries

The EUIPO’s IP perception study revealed significant trends across the European Union related to the online piracy of live sports events, where 12% of the total population has accessed or streamed content from illegal online sources to watch sports.

Bulgaria is where this practice is most common in the EU with 21% of total respondents admitting they had used illegal online sources to watch sports, followed by Greece (20%), Ireland (19%), Spain (19%) and Luxembourg (18%).

Younger citizens age 15-24 reported illegally accessing sporting events online at twice the rate of the total population, according to the study. Bulgarian youth are most likely to engage in illicit sports streaming with 47%, well above the EU average of 27%, followed by Spain (42%) and Greece (42%), Slovenia (39%) and Ireland (34%).

According to the EUIPO’s study on online copyright infringement, streaming is the most popular method to access illicit TV content – 58% of piracy in the EU occurs via streaming and 32% through download.

Counterfeit sporting goods: a €850 million problem

According to the EUIPO’s Intellectual Property and Youth Scoreboard, an average of 10% of EU youth age 15-24 admit to purchasing fake sporting equipment intentionally, with it being most common among Greek youngsters – 18% of whom had done so. Conversely, 7% of young European consumers have bought counterfeit items by accident.

The impact of these counterfeit sales in the EU is substantial, causing an estimated total loss of €851 million annually – equivalent to 11% of the total sales in the sector – according to EUIPO calculations. France, Austria, and the Netherlands experience the highest monetary losses, amounting to hundreds of millions of euro each. In terms of proportional impact, Romania, Lithuania, and Hungary suffer the most, with counterfeit sports equipment accounting for up to 20% of total lost sales in each country.

Counterfeiting has serious economic and social consequences. Aside from revenue losses and job destruction, as evidenced by another recent EUIPO study on the economic impact of counterfeiting in the clothing, cosmetics, and toy sectors in the EU, companies suffer from a damaged brand reputation, due to lower quality copies, and European economies see a rise in scepticism around the soundness of investing in innovation – a major threat for the continued development of a healthy economy.

Fake goods also pose serious health risks to consumers and do not comply with European health, safety, and environmental protection standards. As indicated by the EUIPO and OECD study on dangerous goods, counterfeit sports equipment can fail at critical moments and also contain toxic or hazardous ingredients.

Fighting live-event piracy

Live-event pirates have several methods to push unauthorised content online, including illegal subscription services and open internet streams fuelled by advertising revenue. These operators use sophisticated techniques to bypass detection, often leveraging legitimate content distribution services. Even in the case of events broadcast on free channels, such as the Olympics or the final rounds of the UEFA championships, online piracy persists.

Across the EU, countries and affected parties are combatting live event piracy relying on regulations and technology to block illicit online services. The European Commission has adopted two recommendations: one on combating online piracy of sports and other live events, which established a network of dedicated national administrative authorities, and another to combat counterfeiting through increased enforcement and awareness to which the EUIPO contributes through dissemination, implementation and monitoring efforts.

In addition, efforts to fight piracy include awareness so consumers can find legitimate digital content. The EUIPO’s Agorateka is a tool that helps viewers identify legal offers for online content, including sporting events.

Taking down fake goods in europe

Through Operation Fake Star – an initiative targeting counterfeit goods infringing well-known brands, police authorities throughout Europe detected and seized 8 million counterfeit luxury and sporting goods, more than half of the 14 million counterfeit items seized in 2023. The counterfeit sporting goods included fake textiles, footwear, labels, leather goods and clothing accessories, including sports footwear and clothing, with an estimated retail value of €120 million. The operation led to the arrest of 264 people in connection with the counterfeits.

During the operation, 552,611 footwear items, 1,140,343 pieces of sportswear and 5,497,460 fake labels with logos were detected. The seizures confirm that many of the final fake goods are finished in Europe, where the counterfeit logos are applied to unlabelled products. In exposing counterfeiting rings, the operation also uncovered other serious crimes, such as organised crime, smuggling, fraud and money laundering.

Operation Fake Star is led by Spain (Policía Nacional) and co-led by Greece (Hellenic Police), under the coordination of Europol, along with the active participation of agencies and authorities from 18 countries.

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