Twitter Will Stream NFL Games, Insert Hail Mary Joke Here
In a surprise and modestly confounding move, Twitter has won a bid to stream NFL games on Thursday nights this upcoming season. Yes, that Twitter.
The move comes as a surprise, not least because of the stiff competition Twitter faced. Amazon, Verizon, and Facebook were all reported to have been in contention, though the latter apparently dropped out a few days ago. Despite those deep pockets, Twitter prevailed, as Bloomberg first reported Tuesday morning.
Those other companies have one very important thing in common: A built-in video streaming infrastructure. Amazon has its Amazon Video platform, while Verizon, in addition to handling streaming media across its networks all day, has a dedicated streaming app called go90. Facebook users, meanwhile, collectively already watch 100 million hours of video every single day. Twitter? Not so much. The service is certainly capable of serving video, but it’s still largely the provenance of short bursts of text and the occasional reaction GIF. Twitter does own Periscope, a popular live-streaming app, but only integrated it into its prime service a few months ago.
“This places Twitter in the content distribution arena, which is a very competitive space and not aligned with the core competencies that were key to the company’s early success,” says 451 Research analyst Raul Castañon-Martinez. “Twitter is under tremendous pressure to replicate the success of social networks like Facebook and Instagram. I don’t think, however, that the company needs to reinvent itself entirely to achieve that.”
And yet! Away it goes. In fairness, video is at this point a necessity; it drives engagement, and brings with it more lucrative ad deals. Twitter already had a deal with the NFL in place to show highlights, and clearly those brief clips drove enough engagement to make multi-hour games worth the cash. Most importantly, though, this isn’t just television we’re talking about. This is football, the most popular sport in America. Last year, a single game between the Jaguars and Bills—the first globally streamed NFL game—garnered over 30 million streams and over 15 million unique visitors for Yahoo. Kickoff was at 9:30 am ET.
That’s got to be tempting to Twitter, a service which has seen flat user growth over the last few quarters. The NFL has a legion of loyal fans who are likely to watch wherever it happens land. If even a small percentage of them stick around, that could represent a real opportunity. The move also comes a few months after Facebook introduced Sports Stadium, a new hub designed to drive game-related conversations in real time. You know, the kind that currently happen on Twitter.
“People watch NFL games with Twitter today,” said Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a prepared statement. “Now they’ll be able to watch right on Twitter Thursday nights.”
It doesn’t take a seasoned yenta to make this match; Twitter needs users, the NFL has viewers. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be quite so simple in practice.
While Twitter has the rights to most Thursday night NFL games, it won’t be streaming all of them. Twitter will stream 10 of 16 Thursday games, with the remainder going to the NFL Network. As Recode points out, Verizon already owns the mobile rights to NFL games. All of which is to say, there’s plenty of room for confusion about when, exactly, one can watch the NFL on Twitter in the first place.
Then there’s the fact that these aren’t exclusives. The games will also be on network television, which raises the question of who exactly these streams are for. “Where am I going to be that I don’t have access to CBS or NBC?” says Dan Rayburn, streaming media analyst with Frost & Sullivan. “I’d literally have to be in the middle of somewhere that there’s no TV, but there is an internet connection, and I have a tablet or phone.” Football-loving cord-cutters (who don’t already have an antenna for their live broadcast fix) like that almost certainly exist, but it’s hard to imagine them in any significant quantity. It’s a more appealing pitch for international NFL fans, who don’t have access to US broadcast television, but even then, time zone differences may limit the appeal. And if you’re that big a fan abroad, Rayburn says, you probably have an NFL streaming package anyway.
There’s also the simple fact that streaming is hard. Outside of MLB Advanced Media, which powers MLB, ESPN, the WWE Network, and HBO Now, few providers are able to offer major events without hiccups—including Yahoo’s NFL adventure, which sputtered plenty for some fans. A smooth experience is no guarantee, and a jerky one may turn off more people than it attracts. Rayburn expects Twitter to minimize those complications by outsourcing the backend, but the company hasn’t said either way.
Twitter also doesn’t currently have a presence on streaming boxes like Apple TV and Roku. If that remains true through this fall, the majority of Twitter streaming will be happening on one’s phone or tablet. The average NFL game is over three hours long. This matters, especially because the Twitter streams won’t require authentication of any kind; in other words, you don’t need a cable subscription to access them, which would be pretty appealing for cable-cutters were you able to easily view them on a big screen. Chromecast users, who can simply “throw” content from their phones to their dongles, should be just fine.
“People are not going to be watching this on their phone, that’s for sure,” says Rayburn. “And if they do they’re just going to watch snippets of it.” The screen is too small for that kind of usage, and the data drain would be onerous if you’re not on Wi-Fi. So people will end up watching this on their computers, but where within Twitter will the video even live? Twitter could put the game on its homepage, a bit of Internet real estate that has yet to reach its potential. It could pin a window at or near the top of people’s feeds. It could tuck a stream in the Moments tab, giving people a reason to use it. Or none of the above! The possibilities are endless, if only because none of them makes a ton of sense.
There are still a few months to work out those practical and technical issues, though. And regardless of the user experience, if you’re Twitter, it still makes a certain kind of sense. It has more money than users, and paying for a bunch of NFL games is as good a way as any to convert one into the other, quickly. Whether they stick around is another question entirely.
For his part, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell tweeted out the announcement on Tuesday morning, along with an embedded video of 2015 season highlights. It was his tweet first since September of 2014.