No More Highlight Reels: How SOPA Would Hurt Sports Fans

Posted by Megan Greenwell

Did you see the mind-blowing Hail Mary catch at the end of the first half of the Giants-Packers game this weekend? Check it out. How about that improbable Vernon Davis touchdown that knocked the Saints out of the playoffs? Here’s the highlight. Or the game-winning 80-foot buzzer-beater in the Div. III college basketball game? Watch it here.

I saw Davis’ catch with a couple of friends in real time, the three of us yelling tremendously creative phrases like “Oh my god!” and “No way!” at the TV. But a play that ridiculous deserves to be watched over and over again, so I’ve replayed the clip online perhaps half a dozen times. I missed the other craziest plays of the weekend, but Deadspin and YouTube had me covered. I had never heard of Lindsey Wilson College before its basketball team won on a shot that traveled nearly the entire length of the floor, but by the end of the weekend I was sharing the clip on Twitter. I was hardly alone: At one point, it was the fourth-highest-trending video on YouTube.

Of all the ways technology has changed the sports world, the ability to post and watch game footage online is arguably the biggest. It wasn’t that long ago that you actually had to see a game to see its greatest play. Even after ESPN became “The Worldwide Leader,” missing SportsCenter meant missing the play that everyone would be talking about the next day. Now? You can find at least half a dozen versions of any important play—ranging from shaky FlipCam images of someone’s TV to footage swiped from an illegal streaming website—on YouTube within half an hour. That shift has made sports fandom way more fun, and SOPA’s sponsors want to take it all away.

The Stop Online Piracy Act would restrict free speech, eliminate jobs, and stifle American innovation. Google cofounder Sergey Brin says it would “put [the United States] on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world.” And while my ability to watch Blake Griffin highlight reels is by no means the most important thing at risk in Congress’ debate over SOPA and its Senate counterpart PIPA, the bill also would undermine the entire framework of modern sports.

It might not shock you to learn that people posting highlights online usually haven’t gone through the process of acquiring the copyrights for the footage. Under SOPA, not only would the individuals be criminally liable for uploading copyrighted material, the websites would be, too. YouTube could be forced to shut down unless it found a way of policing the 48 hours of video uploaded every minute. And because at least two of the three videos I link to above are likely copyright violations, this magazine and I would be criminals, too.

The backlash against SOPA has been heartening, particularly the boycotts of some of the hundreds of companies that have made the tone-deaf decision to support the bill. But few people seem to realize that among those tone-deaf companies are all four major American sports leagues, plus ESPN [PDF]. That means the people who want to ruin the way you watch and share sports are the people whose salaries you and I pay through ticket and merchandise revenue and watching games on TV.

At first blush, the sports world’s desire to crack down on piracy makes sense: After all, if I stream a game illegally instead of paying for cable or an online package like NFL Game Pass ($249.99 for the season), I'm taking money away from the league and its executives. But SOPA wouldn’t stop professional pirates from streaming games. They have plenty of ways to circumvent U.S. restrictions, and the bill wouldn’t cut off their funding.

No, SOPA would allow large-scale offshore piracy sites that stream entire games to continue existing, instead targeting your ability to send a 30-second clip of that amazing touchdown catch to your friends. And that, in turn, will hurt sports leagues and the networks that show their games. Having constant access to the most interesting sports highlights—whether from last night or 50-plus years ago—has made me a more engaged fan. Trading those clips with my friends over email or Twitter makes me more excited to see the next week’s games. I wouldn’t stop watching sports if SOPA passed, but I’d almost certainly be giving the leagues less revenue.

That league commissioners and ESPN executives are shortsighted enough to support such absurdly flawed legislation shouldn’t surprise anyone. Let’s just hope their misunderstanding of the dynamics of modern-day sports fandom isn’t enough to drive fans away.