MADRID — La Liga needs every possible source of income to try and compete financially with the Premier League. So it's taking its rivalry with the mighty league online, and launching a campaign to crack down on illegal streaming of games.
Studies show that digital piracy robs the Spanish soccer industry of nearly 175 million euros ($186 million) each season, keeping it from fully profiting from clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona and players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
La Liga is using a proprietary tool to monitor the internet and has deployed a group of "online guards" to denounce illegal broadcasts of games. It also gets help from Google, Facebook and Twitter to find and block fraudulent streaming of matches.
La Liga actively works with authorities to promote the arrests of those caught stealing its content, and seeks full prosecution of them in court.
The league's latest anti-piracy campaign — titled "When piracy appears, football disappears" — was recently launched in several countries where its games are broadcast. It shows a video with game highlights and players being gradually blocked out by black images.
La Liga has also partnered with several international anti-piracy groups, and even joined forces with the U.S. government and other sports leagues to step up its fight to eradicate the problem. League officials were in the White House last year discussing anti-piracy solutions with members of the U.S. intellectual property office.
La Liga's goal is to reach "Zero Piracy."
"We are taking all the necessary measures to make sure that La Liga's content is commercialized legally," Melcior Soler, the league's director for its anti-piracy and audiovisuals department, told The Associated Press. "We need to protect our content to guarantee the value and the future of our competition. Revenues from broadcast rights from across the world are crucial for the clubs and are the basis for the high level of the competition."
Improving revenue from television rights has been a priority for the Spanish league in its fight against the commercial domination of the Premier League, which has been getting the most lucrative TV deals in European soccer. La Liga says part of the reason for that is that the Premier League has access to a bigger base of subscribers in England, with about 10 million more than the Spanish league has in Spain.
Preventing the loss of subscribers to piracy is seen as key to close this financial gap between the leagues.
Many people turn to the illegal broadcasts in Spain because the majority of games are on pay TV, especially the bigger ones. In England, the problem is that there's a blackout on most games being shown live on television to protect attendance. Only 168 of 380 games in a season can be shown live, so viewers end up seeking the illegal streams.
Studies by a local anti-piracy group show that one in every five internet users watches games through illegal broadcasts in Spain. In 2015 alone, a total of 141 million matches were watched through illegal means in some 2 million homes, according to the Coalition of Creators and Content Industries. The market value of these retransmissions was estimated in more than 410 million euros ($437 million).
About 40 percent of these consumers would be willing to pay for legal broadcasts, which would add 16 percent in revenue — or nearly 175 million euros ($186 million) — to the Spanish soccer industry. La Liga said this week that for the first time it surpassed the mark of 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) in total revenue in a season.
According to the studies, the main justification for viewers of illegal broadcasts was that "football players already earn enough money."
"Piracy seriously damages La Liga but also the clubs and the fans," Soler said. "It puts our growth model at risk. Our mission is to protect the audiovisual rights owners who have been following the rules, but also to protect all football fans in our country and the rest of the world."
La Liga said its anti-piracy actions have yielded positive results so far.
The league said it helped close streaming websites such as Rojadirecta.com and successfully blocked links offering fraudulent access to its matches. This season alone, it said it was able to eliminate 98 percent of illegal links broadcasting its games.
It also recently helped authorities dismantle another ring that sold illegal cable-television decoders, one of the most common piracy threats for La Liga. This particular ring sold decoders that allowed consumers to access more than 100 channels for only eight euros per month through card-sharing technology.
The online tool developed by La Liga, called Marauder, has been key in its monitoring efforts. It allows the league to constantly analyze - and automatically denounce - web contents and servers that could potentially be retransmitting illegal content. During games played in La Liga and the Copa del Rey, a team of monitors scans through social media and mobile apps to see if any content is being shared illegally.
The other top soccer leagues in Europe also have been taking steps to tackle piracy. The Premier league recently launched its own campaign to crack down on the problem, and Germany's Bundesliga has been actively engaging in actions to protect its product.
"It is crucial that La Liga takes on this fight to continue its defense of the integrity of the game in all levels," Soler said.
Associated Press writers Rob Harris in London and Ciaran Fahey in Berlin contributed to this report.
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