NBC has found unprecedented success in bringing the world’s most popular soccer league, the Barclays English Premier League (EPL), to America. With a record-breaking 3.3 million viewers for this season’s debut games in August, the network has built off the multiple records it toppled for soccer coverage in its inaugural season—not to mention American enthusiasm during the World Cup.

The success comes, in part, from how easy NBC has made it to watch the sport. In addition to broadcasting the biggest games live on TV, the network streams all the other games on its online service NBC Live Extra, allowing fans to pick and choose between any of the 10 matches each weekend.

EPL’s officials are likely elated at the prospect of America’s increased interest in soccer. But they are peeved at the countless others who weren’t recorded in those viewership surveys—the hordes of fans who routinely watch matches and highlights for free online.

In September, English police nabbed a 27-year-old man from Manchester who they discovered with an “industrial-scale bank of computers.” The man had allegedly been illegally offering free soccer streams worldwide through 12 sophisticated computer servers. The Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit, the authorities who conducted the raid, sounded a warning to all would-be streamers: “Today’s operation sends out a clear message that we are homing in on those who knowingly commit or facilitate online copyright infringement.”

According to the EPL, which made in $4.1 billion in total revenue last season, streaming represents a “black market” that is unduly harming its bottom line. The league’s plan is to patrol the web and shut down the culprits. The mentality is not exclusive to England either: In Spain, where the world’s two best players (Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) play, an "#antipiratería" campaign is in full force. The campaign is highlighted by this comical video of superimposed fans tackling players on the pitch, an effort to show how illegal streamers are "hurting" the game.

Earlier this year the EPL’s director of communications, Dan Johnson, announced that apart from streaming, even posting vines or sharing the videos of highlights online would constitute illegal activity and a breach of copyright laws. "We would discourage fans from doing it, we’re developing technologies like GIF crawlers, Vine crawlers, working with Twitter to look to curtail this kind of activity," he told the BBC. "I know it sounds as if we’re killjoys, but we have to protect our intellectual property."

"Vine and GIF crawlers"? Sounds oddly dystopian, so I asked Johnson to clarify the Premier League’s plans. "The quality, success, and popularity of the Premier League is built on a virtuous circle of investment," he said. "Top-level football played in full stadia attracts broadcast interest and investment. Anything that puts that model at risk, such as intellectual property theft, could result in a lessening of the attractiveness of the competition—the great irony being, that is why fans are so keen to see the action in the first place."

It’s of course natural for the world’s biggest sports league to want to protect its investment. But attempting to find and prosecute the malefactors seems like it could become a game of whack-a-mole: As soon as once source is eliminated, a couple more will inevitably appear. Still, while Johnson remains realistic about their prospects for success, he was adamant that the EPL isn’t on a witch-hunt. "Enforcement is just one part of the equation," he said. "No one wants to be going after individuals, so we are working with ISPs and social media providers to make this third party copyright is respected and that egregious transgressors are held to account."

It sounds like the same story that we’ve all heard with regards to file sharing and unsanctioned streaming of entertainment from movies to music. But the issue is a little different when it comes to soccer. Authorities may see online piracy as a problem to solve, but really it’s a phenomenon intrinsic to the sport’s culture.

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Soccer is popularly consumed globally. It’s common to see news footage of hundreds of people watching the sport while crowded around a small TV screen in a remote village continents away from the game. Though FIFA is soccer’s worldwide governing arm, the way the sport is broadcasted and ultimately how it operates is largely decentralized. Some leagues and teams are clearly more popular and thus take prominence, but fans’ loyalties are still varied, much more so than in American sports.

That’s in part because in most U.S. sports, there is one main league (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) with 30 to 32 teams. Soccer works on a completely different plane. In Europe alone there are 53 leagues and thousands of teams. Only the top five or so leagues are followed internationally, but that still leaves hundreds of teams for fans to choose from. Imagine three or four different NFLs with each league somewhat similar in terms of quality—now envision trying to broadcast that.

Time zones are another factor. Sometimes, important games are on during a fan’s work hours. Diehards don’t want to wait to watch their favorite team play on tape delay, opting instead to watch right at their desks.

Men watch the 2014 World Cup Group B soccer match between the Netherlands and Australia on a laptop, at a camel market in Daba near Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, on June 18, 2014. (Mohamed Alhwaity/Reuters)

All of this creates a situation where fans in many parts of the world, especially areas where satellite TV coverage may be too expensive or may not even exist, must to go to the Internet to follow their favorite team. Sometimes this is legal, as was the case this past summer when the FIFA World Cup broke streaming records to the tune of 30 million viewers. Other times it’s not: More than 20 million people illegally watched the World cup as well. Peruse any online forum or simply do a Google Search and within seconds you’ll find a litany of pages solely devoted to sharing unsanctioned streams. Many illegal streams are set up by fans themselves, who take the risk of sharing their own legitimate television subscriptions for free online, sometimes making little to no money off the venture, motivated instead by an odd moral obligation to help people see the game they love.

Guilherme Neto has been running one of the most popular streaming curation sites, Ronaldo7.net since 2010. Based out of Portugal, Neto doesn’t do the illegal streaming himself, but instead aggregates the best feeds. His site is usually listed at top of any search for streams online, and with 3.5 million likes on Facebook there’s clearly a massive demand. "Not everyone has the means to pay for a $50 to 100 TV subscription package just so they can watch their favorite team play six to seven times a month," he told me. "These rates obviously vary by country or market, but it’s still too expensive for millions of people out there."

By not hosting the streams himself, Neto believes he remains inculpable; he provides the product to the public, but he’s not the one actually stealing it. "I honestly don’t see this as being anything illegal, all the streams we list are open to the public and can be found in many different search engines anyway," he said.

While easily accessed, streams are rarely pleasant to watch—the sites are usually unreliable, low quality, and ad-laden. Here’s an example of what you’re likely to come across if you head to a soccer streaming page:

Firstrowsports.eu

It’s a confusing advertising labyrinth of pop-ups, pop-unders, codecs, interstitials, and the even odd virus—this is how streamers make their money. Neto usually deals with streamers directly, most of them requesting to be included on his exclusive list of streams. "At the end of the day most of the streamers don’t really make that much money, just enough to keep going," he said. "Most of the advertisers pay on a performance basis, so they tend not to make much money from ‘regulars’ in the streaming scene, as they aren’t likely to get tricked into installing codecs, apps, or whatever they’re attempting users to do through their ads campaigns."

Regular fans have gotten in on the act as well. Recently, the video-sharing app Vine and blogged "GIF highlights" (some are even higher quality than HD TV) have become hugely popular among fans. This has caused a unique problem for soccer authorities. In an increasingly mobile world, these platforms are eroding whatever monopoly the television/video medium once had on not only soccer, but on sports highlights in general. Within minutes of a goal, it’s already online. Johnson doesn’t like that because it interferes with part of his organization’s business plan. "The Premier League has made short-form clips part of the packages we sell," he says. "Currently this is a rights structure: Broadcasters pay for premium content, and it’s down to them as to how they exploit it."

Johnson is correct: The Premier League does in fact offer a product that provides mobile highlights as they happen. The Sun’s Goal App, which costs £7 a month, seems like a viable GIF alternative—but it’s only available in the U.K., leaving fans in many parts of the world with no option but the illegal one.

Christopher Harris, founder of worldsoccertalk.com, has been keenly focused on the illegal streaming issue for the past few years. He sees the Premier League’s crackdown on Vines and GIFs not as a genuine attempt to stop them, but a halfhearted effort with the goal of appeasing sponsors.

"The No. 1 reason why the Premier League in particular is trying to crack down on Vines and animated GIFs is because it sells licenses to mobile and online clips," he said. "The Premier League has to show that it’s fighting to prevent them in order to pacify The Sun and other media companies who have paid large sums of money for the rights."

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To see how widespread streaming is, look no further than American soccer professionals. U.S. National team member Alejandro Bedoya once posted a photo to his Facebook account clearly showing the illegal streams he used to watch a match. Even one of ESPN’s longest tenured employees, anchor Bob Ley, once tweeted a request for an illegal stream. The person who eventually sent it to him? Former U.S. player Taylor Twellman. The nonchalance of the exchange (in public even) is clear example of just how normalized the behavior is.

Twitter

It’s not clear how much any of this specifically hurts leagues’ profits. But what’s certain is that fans who consume the sport illegally in many cases don’t only consume it illegally. In some way or another these fans eventually contribute to the massive revenues that the sport makes every year, whether it’s by buying pricey team apparel, or shelling out for expensive tickets when European teams play in exhibition games. This past summer Manchester United took on Real Madrid of Spain at the "Big House" in Michigan. More than 100,000 fans showed up, many of who likely found their initial exposure to both teams through an illegal stream of some sort. Without the ability to reach those fans, would soccer leagues’ influence be as vast?

Instead of trying to limit the ways that diehards can watch their sport, the EPL and other soccer leagues might want to look at what’s been happening in other entertainment industries. Netflix and other streaming video sides have become major TV and film players by offering consumers the on-demand experience they want. And a 2012 study showed that illegal downloading of music declined after the advent of legal streaming services like Spotify. To its credit, NBC seems to have figured out the lesson of those examples stateside, but the rest of the world still lags behind.

"It isn’t going away," Harris said of illegal streaming. "At this rate the practice will continue to grow in popularity and become second nature for younger soccer fans. The leagues have the advantage of having more access to teams as well as behind-the-scenes footage, so they could supplement their legal online streams with additional content that pirates wouldn't be able to compete with."

Harris is right: The leagues have the resources they need to address piracy in a way that doesn't punish fans. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPPA) recently launched the website WhereToWatch, which catalogs legal streams across the web for various movies that television shows, effectively taking the guesswork out streaming for consumers. Why couldn't soccer authorities do something similar? Media may be in a transformative age, but the mantra of a classic film about a different sport is worth heading here: If you build it ... they will come. Don’t? And they’ll find surely find another way, legal or not.