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Websites lure Sabres fans to dark side

The 48-day standoff between Time Warner Cable and MSG Network drove some Buffalo Sabres fans to great lengths to watch their team before Friday's agreement put the games back on cable TV.

"Mary" is a 42-year-old Sabres fan who works out of her home in Niagara County. The Time Warner-MSG dispute left her with few television alternatives, as Verizon FiOS has not reached her town.

Mary, who spoke to The News on the condition that her identity be disguised, found herself venturing into the murky world of illicit online streaming. There are dozens of websites that flout federal copyright law by showing TV broadcasts of sporting events online.

"Online streaming is a measure of last resort," she said.

"Do I want to intentionally do something illegal? No, of course not," she said. "I am a play-by-the-rules person and don't even have so much as a speeding ticket to my name. Since I don't at the moment see how using a live stream puts me at risk or breaks any laws, then that's the option I'm going with."

The streams are also very popular with Sabres fans who live outside of Western New York. Some out-of-market fans pay to subscribe to the NHL Center Ice package on TV, but others find that unsatisfying or too expensive.

What are the legal risks to someone viewing the sporting feeds online? Probably slightly higher than the odds of being prosecuted for taking the tags off their mattresses at home.

Mark Bartholomew, a professor at UB Law School who specializes in intellectual property rights and cyberlaw, said a person viewing online sports streams could potentially be held liable for copyright infringement.

"By engaging in that streaming activity, either making a copy or publicly displaying the work -- those are things that are folded under the copyright protection that would be held by the sports franchise, or MSG Network," he said.

"I guess the way I would put it is, there is a distinction between what's a legal problem and what's a realistic thought process we should all undertake, which is to say, 'Will I be sued for this?' And the answer is, it's really, really, really unlikely, but possible.

"If MSG has a problem, if the NHL has a problem, they are likely to go after these sites that stream these things," as opposed to individual viewers, he said.

The laws sometimes seem like little more than a speed bump for the operators of the streaming sites, many of which operate outside of the United States.

A few days before the Super Bowl this year, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady admitted to watching the previous year's championship game on a rogue website.

"Last year I was rehabbing my foot in Costa Rica, watching the game on an illegal Super Bowl website," Brady told reporters. "And now I'm actually playing in the game. So, it's pretty cool."

That same week, the federal government announced it had shut down 16 of the sites that streamed sports illegally.

One of those sites, FirstRowSports.com, has since reappeared under a slightly different domain name. Policing these sites becomes like a game of whack-a-mole for the government.

"If it's just a choice where I can't see that [game] at all, or I can get it illegally, there is so much demand that there is always going to be some other illegal site that pops up," Bartholomew said.

This story is not going to publicize any particular streaming sites, but there are quite a few in existence. We do not endorse any illegal activity, but in the interest of journalistic duty to our readers, we did sample some of what's out there.

During Thursday night's Sabres-Flyers game, we came across one stream of the game with a very high-quality picture -- almost like watching TV. Oftentimes that is not the case, however.

Some streaming sites feature poor picture quality, audio and video that are out of sync or a picture that stops and starts, and pop-up ads that lead to more pop-up ads or worse -- viruses, malware and other computer infections.

One can usually find the sites using a search engine such as Google. Windows Explorer has a reputation for being especially vulnerable to viruses, so if you are going to check out the dark side, you'll want to use a more robust browser such as Chrome, Firefox or Safari. (And never download anything from the streaming sites, including ads that say "your video player is out of date." Just don't.)

"I have a firewall, an antivirus program and a utility to clean my PC," said Mary from Niagara County. "I use all three during and after a live stream."

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Hockey Day in America

You won't need a firewall or even a cable box to watch today's Sabres game on TV. A pair of rabbit ears would probably get the job done.

The Sabres' 12:30 home game against Pittsburgh will be on Channel 2 as part of NBC Sports' Hockey Day in America programming.

Gord Miller from TSN will call the Sabres' game along with analyst Ray Ferraro.

At 3 p.m., the Boston Bruins take on Minnesota on Channel 2, followed at 6 p.m. by New Jersey at Montreal on cable's NBC Sports Network.

email: gconnors@buffnews.com