The Long Read: What we learned from Twitter’s NFL premiere

SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long runs the rule over Twitter's first punt at Thursday Night Football.

The Long Read: What we learned from Twitter’s NFL premiere

SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long runs the rule over Twitter's first punt at Thursday Night Football.

Twitter debuted its coverage of the National Football League (NFL) last week, providing the first of ten Thursday Night Football games to feature on the platform this season. Its long-awaited premiere was eagerly anticipated, not only among lovers of pro football and cable fee haters but across the sports media industry at large, and offered a first glimpse of how live sport might be presented and consumed - at least as Twitter would have it - in years to come.

So how did it fare?

The numbers

According to the NFL, Twitter’s TNF debut reached a total of 2.3 million combined worldwide viewers, with 2.1 million tuning in for the main event between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. On average, viewers spent 22 minutes watching the broadcast, with 243,000 following the game at any given minute. 

All told, Twitter’s viewership accounted for 13 per cent of the game’s 15.7 million total viewers across all platforms, including CBS, NFL Network, NFL Digital, and CBS Interactive. There was, however, a caveat: viewers only had to watch for a minimum of just three seconds for their view to count towards Twitter’s reach. By comparison, the broadcast industry standard is six minutes.

The reception

Generally speaking, the inaugural broadcast went down well, garnering mostly positive reviews among Twitter’s notoriously hard-to-please and always brutally honest user base. That the coverage was provided on multiple platforms for free proved, as expected, a major plus point while the majority of viewers were impressed with the overall viewing experience, which included an accompanying feed of tweets curated by way of Twitter’s algorithm and, supposedly, a team of real-life humans.

There was also praise for the clear picture quality and the user-friendly nature of the stream itself. As well as providing coverage on its own site and mobile apps, Twitter streamed the game on partner sites and through third-party services like Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Xbox One. That meant accessing the action was easy - so easy, in fact, that even the most hopeless technophobes would have had little trouble tuning in.

Yet some viewers were not so convinced. Much of the criticism centred on the curated tweet-commentary, which featured too many inane comments from users who, going on their ill-informed input, could hardly be called football experts. That led to calls for better customisation and personalisation next time round, while buffering issues and delays in the broadcast were also criticised. At times, Twitter’s stream lagged behind the main TV broadcast by anything up to a minute.

The strategy

While we have only seen the earliest renderings, last Thursday’s game provided a clearer picture of Twitter’s long-term design and a video-first strategy that, though still a work in progress, is a central part of the company’s effort to transition away from its social network roots to become a go-to destination for live news and events.

Since its IPO in 2013, Twitter’s stock price has halved while its average monthly user base has stagnated in recent months, plateauing at around 313 million. Nevertheless, the company continues to occupy a unique position at the intersection of digital and traditional media. By marrying the first and second screens, as it is now doing through the power of live streaming, it is well placed to capitalise on changing consumption habits and ongoing shifts in the increasingly fissured media landscape.

Sport, like everything else, has moved online, and Twitter has been there every step of the way. For many fans, screaming at the TV has long given way to furiously penning a strongly worded tweet. Corporate America is well aware of this - before last Thursday’s game, major brands like Anheuser-Busch, Ford, Nestlé, Sony Pictures, and Verizon had signed up to advertise during Twitter’s coverage - and so too is the NFL.

"We really ended up with Twitter because we thought it gave us a great opportunity for incremental audience reach and mobile reach," Brian Rolapp, the executive vice president of media for the NFL, told Fast Company recently. "We have data that says seven of ten of our fans have a second screen open [while watching games]. They’re texting, they’re playing fantasy, they’re on Twitter.”

But there is more to this than ensuring football fans stay glued to the action wherever they are. It is widely accepted that the NFL’s decision to further carve up its rights and take a calculated punt on Twitter was intended to stir up interest among the big internet companies. That, of course, would include Yahoo!, whose offer of US$17 million for this season’s ten-game TNF package was turned down in favour of Twitter’s lesser bid of US$10 million, and Amazon, which is said to be on the prowl for a whole host of sports streaming rights.

With one eye on 2022, when its current major rights contracts are up for renewal, the NFL also knows that if viewers, sponsors and the major digital players see enough in Twitter’s coverage to get excited about, further riches will surely follow.

The outlook

For some, Twitter’s move towards live streaming heralds the end of TV as we know it; for others, it is merely the latest sign that cable’s stranglehold on premium sports rights is weakening. Whatever it is, Thursday’s NFL broadcast showed that Twitter might - just might - be the place where disgruntled cord-cutters of the future find themselves going for their sporting fix.

In reality, Twitter’s streams are unlikely to replace the old-fashioned, shared experience of crowding round the living room telly or piling into a sweaty sports bar anytime soon. The traditional TV broadcast remains, after all, the medium of choice for the majority of sports fans, no matter what the multi-platform digital offering looks like. Still, the opportunity is there for Twitter to make a profound impact on the marketplace, especially given more and more sports properties, brands and ad agencies are going digital in their quest for eyeballs and enhanced revenues.

With a bit of fine-tuning, Twitter’s live streaming product will be a strong addition to the myriad OTT offerings proliferating online. For now, though, there remains room for improvement, beginning with the Houston Texans’ trip to the New England Patriots this coming Thursday.

Michael Long (@_MichaelLong) is SportsPro's Americas editor and this is his fortnightly column.