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Premier League prepares for fresh piracy onslaught after shutting down 30,000 illegal streams last season

With those humble, dedicated, and likeable Olympians now off our screens, it’s time for a different breed of athletes to take centre stage once again. The football season returns this weekend and however much people love to hate the fickle mercenaries who dominate the Premier League, it remains one of the most popular spectacles on Earth.

When you have demand, you have supply – and in the case of online streaming of Premier League matches – you have illegal supply. Authorities shut down more than 30,000 illegal websites last season according to the BBC, after a “rapid rise” in their online presence.

A plethora of sites promising Premier League action are now available on the Web, providing links to pirate streams hosted elsewhere. Usually taken from foreign broadcasters’ coverage, the streams are often delayed and of poor quality. But with UK regulations preventing our TV channels from showing the traditional 15:00 Saturday matches, and premium sports packages like Sky coming at a heavy cost, football fans will to continue to scour the Internet for illegal streams this weekend and throughout the season.

Dan Johnson, a spokesman for the Premier League, said, "If you want top quality football, it costs money. It's not just about star performers getting paid well, it's about investment in facilities and youth development."

Charged with clamping down on the 30,000 plus sites is enforcement company NetResult, which automatically traces the ‘fingerprint’ of online streams that appear to be showing the same as live matches. NetResult’s Tim Cooper describes the process as “a case of whack-a-mole”, as his team tries to shut down at least 80 per cent of Premier League streams during a game. "I'm sure people who've tried to view Premier League content have found that it's not the best experience,” he says. “Streams can lag, they can be shut down, you have to find another one."

When the BBC contacted a sports streaming site, its manager defended the stance of video hosting services. "If a person walked up to me in the street and asked directions to Barclays Bank and then went there and robbed it, would that make me a co-conspirator in a bank robbery?,” the respondent said. “In reality the person who is doing the streaming is the person who authorities should be chasing."

But that wasn’t the case with popular show-linking site Surfthechannel this week, after its founder Anton Vickerman was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of conspiracy to facilitate copyright infringement. The ruling highlighted the increasing severity of the issue, and with Ofcom preparing to clamp down harder on illegal streaming from 2014, it will be interesting to see whether stricter punishments are soon imposed on sites linking to unauthorised sports videos.

Until then, the game of whack-a-mole will only continue for the Premier League, as Internet-savvy football fans get ready to eke every bit of live action they can out of the forthcoming season, legal or otherwise.

Image: Manchester Evening News