Twitter’s NFL play may be shrewd or doomed to fail, depending on who you ask

Twitter is heavily promoting its Thursday Night Football livestream. (Image: Twitter)(Twitter / NFL)

As Twitter prepared to stream the New York Jets-Buffalo Bills game on Thursday, industry experts watched from the sidelines and in some cases, were still trying to figure out the endgame for the social media provider.

The provider livestreamed CBS’ telecast of the game to its users, and made the stream available everywhere that Twitter has a presence – except Canada, due to a separate rights agreement there, according to CNBC.

Split-screen iPad screenshot of Twitter's TNF game, with
live tweets running underneath the action. 
Twitter also launched its app on several streaming devices the same week, including Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and the Xbox, making it possible for users to stream the game directly to their TVs.

So, was it enough to bring the eyeballs in? According to a Friday release from the NFL, Twitter attracted 2.1 million viewers for the Thursday Night Football game alone, and 2.3 million worldwide for both the pre-game show and the game itself. The average audience during the game was 243,000 with each viewer watching 22 minutes of the game.

Further, "The average digital audience for Thursday Night Football’s season opener across Twitter, NFL Mobile from Verizon, Watch NFL Network, NFL Game Pass (International) and authenticated users on CBS Digital platforms users was 314,000 with each viewer spending an average of 25 minutes watching the Jets defeat the Bills. In total, all digital properties showing Thursday Night Football reached 2.4 million viewers," the NFL said in a media release.

Streaming Media VP and analyst Dan Rayburn said prior to the event that the live-streamed game probably wouldn't attract a lot of viewers. “Twitter’s NFL stream, taking place Thursday Sept. 15th, will be delivered by Akamai and Level 3 and I do not expect it to have a large simultaneous audience,” he said in a blog post this week. “My estimate is under 2M simultaneous streams.”

Despite those numbers, CSG International’s Kent Steffen, president of global OTT business, sees Twitter’s purchase of the rights to stream 10 of this season’s Thursday Night Football games as a long-game strategy to build and keep users. “It was pretty shrewd on their perspective. They paid for the rights but the amount of attention they’re going to get with those rights is pretty amazing considering what they paid,” Steffen said. “…The stat I heard is by 2020, video will only be eclipsed by how much you sleep and work. For all these (social) platforms, they’re looking at video and wondering how they’re going to keep consumers’ attention.”

Media analyst Jay Baer sat on the optimist side of the stadium, telling CNET that the broadcast would be “a seminal moment for Twitter and the NFL as there is a shift from watching TV to livestreaming.”

And to grab consumers with video, it will have to be done on a massive scale – hence the buildup of licensed streaming content on the social media service.

Twitter has also inked live-streaming deals with Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, and will stream Pac-12 college football games over its social media service. It has also launched a nightly highlights show called The Rally, noted CNET.

Much has been written in the months leading up to the game as to why Twitter bid for NFL streaming rights, and why the NFL accepted its bid (over reportedly higher offers from Facebook, for example). The hours before, during and after the event may provide more insights, and set the stage for future livestreamed sports.

For more:
- see this CNET article
- see this Streaming Media post
- see this CNBC article

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