The biggest surprise of Twitter’s debut as a streaming platform for live NFL games was that no-one really complained.
It is richly ironic that the social media most associated with knee-jerk bitching gave a respectful thumbs-up to coverage of the New York Jets beating that Buffalo Bills on a Thursday night in mid-September.
Some 2.1m saw at least three seconds in “100 per cent view” meanwhile the average was 243,000, each watching 22 minutes. It was hardly comparable with the TV audience, 15.4 million for the simulcast on CBS, but neither platform nor audience were paying the sums associated with the traditional broadcasters.
Twitter’s outlay of $1m each for 10 Thursday night games was seen as a steal for the company, one which may just pump purpose back into the ailing bird. Live video is one of their primary strategies for regeneration, hence other major sporting deals with organizations such as Wimbledon.
In contrast, NBC is paying $45m each for their live TV coverage of Thursday night games in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile Yahoo had paid $17m to stream a single game from London in October 2015.
So why did NFL shake hands for comparatively loose change?
The League is sometimes seen as the ogre of digital sport, ruthlessly enforcing restrictions on the use of the content they own. (Only a digital generation could really view the situation this way but they do.)
Whatever the truth of that, it is has not stopped NFL becoming early adopters. An impressive 15m fans saw the Draft Story on Snapchat way back in 2015, before the platform had properly broken through. In August that year, they inked a deal to significantly increase their profile on the platform via Discovery. Back in the day, they were the first to partner with Facebook in testing post-roll adverts. Although their proprietary nature perhaps led them to be late to launch an official channel on YouTube, the deal with Twitter Amplify was groundbreaking in its use of micro-video in a sponsored environment.
Verizon and Facebook were reportedly in negotiations for Thursday Night Football. But Twitter is a good fit. Despite the travails of the company in recent years they still seem to own the in-the-moment conversations which are the backbone of the sporting second screen. Around 72 per cent of their audience is 18-34, at the heart of the cordcutters who have ditched cable TV in recent years, and, reportedly, their advertising model was more favourable to NFL.
The League were looking to broaden their audience and gain an understanding of them. In 2021, many of their major television deals expire. Given its rapid rise, who knows the value of the digital portion then? However you can be sure that NFL will have armed themselves with deep insights into their user habits and demographics thanks, in part, to this deal. Hence they were happy to leave money on the table.
The NFL has the most valuable TV rights deal in world sport, knocking even the Premier League into second place. As a League, the former has a bigger digital presence than the latter.
And this strength may have hampered the growth of the individual teams on social media. Comparing Result Sports’ follower numbers, the Dallas Cowboys, dubbed “America’s team” and holders of the biggest digital reach in the NFL, would not make the top 15 of European football clubs.
In the EPL they would be No 5, just above Tottenham, but with only a third of the reach of the fourth-place side, Manchester City.
All 32 NFL clubs, from the Cowboys’ 12.8m to the LA Rams’ 1.5m, would rank between No 5 and No 15 in the EPL table.
But then, we are not comparing like-with-like. Despite pushing beyond its borders in recent decades, NFL has only a fraction of the global appeal possessed by the EPL.
NBA is a fairer comparison. But even here the NFL clubs are second-best in follower numbers. The LA Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Golden State Warrior all possess a greater reach than the Cowboys. Meanwhile, at the other end, the least-followed NBA side, Utah Jazz, have nearly twice the reach of the Rams. Perhaps this is a testament to the NBA’s more liberal policy regarding match footage on social media or simply that they have far more games.
But then this is not the whole picture anyway. After you get followers you want engagement. Then after you get engagement you want monetization. Then after you get monetization, you want to repeat it over the long term. Greater information and insight is the start of that journey.
But then TV ratings are notoriously hard to decode and action yet, as this article explains, vast sums are being paid because of advertisers’ faith in them.
In 1986 none other than Sports Illustrated declared the “Gravy Train had halted for NFL and other TV sports”. Rights values were bound to decrease they argued. The opposite happened. The EPL’s, continuously hefty rise with each new deal confounds many.
However, despite some consternation over NFL’s viewing figures so far this season, TV and sport are wedded together and mutually sustaining for the foreseeable future. Digital is the second screen and in second place for the decision-makers.
Even the Twitter/NFL deal has been struck to protect and develop the prize asset – TV revenue.
However it is still the biggest erosion of this cozy relationship, albeit only at the edges and when mainstream TV coverage is available too.
If Twitter sustains an audience for Thursday Night NFL Football over the course of the season then, naturally, advertisers will be interested. This experiment will be vital for the short-term future of direct social media streaming and, quite possibly, Twitter itself.
The right product, platform, delivery, timing, marketing and surrounding narrative will help. But the audience will decide whether the entire package has sufficient value.
Whatever happens, America will continue to watch NFL – the only question will be the size of the screen.
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