SBJ/January 9-15, 2017/Media

How NFL streaming fits Twitter’s game plan

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It was one of the most benign plays in football — a fair catch on a punt — that brought the biggest cheers inside Twitter’s makeshift production studio Dec. 1 during the Cowboys-Vikings “Thursday Night Football” game.

Twitter streamed the game live, one of 10 “Thursday Night Football” games the social media platform carried this season. The cheers that erupted in the second quarter came not because of the punt or the ensuing fair catch. Rather, the cheers were focused on what followed: one of Twitter’s commercial loads that ran during the game.

The moment underscored Twitter’s push into live video: sports, entertainment and news. The buzz in Twitter’s offices on Dec. 1 underscored the expectations around its most high-profile live video deal. Last spring, Twitter cut a $10 million deal to stream 10 “Thursday Night Football” games.

“This fits our strategy of integrating video,” Twitter COO Anthony Noto said during an early December interview. “Twitter had 300 live broadcast hours [from August through November]. The NFL accounted for less than 25 of those hours.”

Through a deal with MLB Advanced Media, Twitter shows one NHL game per week. It carries live college games through deals with Pac-12 Networks (for Olympic sports) and Campus Insiders. Twitter also has streamed PGA Tour Live coverage and Eleague competition.

Twitter staffers monitor various streams of last month’s Cowboys-Vikings matchup.
Photo by: JOHN OURAND / STAFF
Anybody who has covered Twitter’s entry into the NFL has heard advertisers and TV networks take shots at Twitter’s average minute audience, which fell way below expectations and generally was about 1-2 percent of the total audience. Across its 10 “TNF” games, Twitter’s average minute audience averaged just 265,000 (weighted by duration), sources said. Its total reach number was much higher, averaging 2.7 million.

The Dec. 1 game that featured one of the NFL’s biggest TV draws in the Cowboys, produced the biggest TV audience in “Thursday
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Night Football” history. It averaged 21.8 million viewers on NBC and NFL Network. It also set a “TNF” record for streams, with Twitter, NBC Sports Digital and NFL Digital combining for an average minute audience of 479,000 viewers.

Noto said the average minute audience is misleading. A former NFL executive, Noto said Twitter’s NFL audience is one that the league covets in that it is younger and more international than the NFL’s TV audience.

Through the seven games, 70 percent of Twitter’s “TNF” audience was under the age of 25. And close to 25 percent of the audience was international.

More to the point, Noto said that Twitter has benefited from the NFL deal, helping it cut distribution deals that made its app available on connected TVs.

“Our overall video strategy has helped us drive distribution, and the NFL is a key element of that,” Noto said.

That distribution strategy could be seen during the Cowboys-Vikings game Dec. 1 in a makeshift production room at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. Around a dozen Twitter staffers sat at a table in a fifth-floor conference room and monitored seven TVs on the wall — each carrying a different feed of the game.

One Samsung TV carried an Apple TV feed; another carried an Amazon Fire TV feed. One Sharp set carried a feed from the NFL’s app on Xbox One, while another carried the feed from Twitter’s Xbox One app. A Sony television had an Android TV feed. Yahoo Sports and Sports Illustrated’s home pages carried Twitter’s live NFL video feed.

Noto said the NFL deal helps Twitter achieve another of its goals. Many reviews of “Thursday Night Football” raved about the viewer experience, especially when compared with the online efforts from traditional TV networks. Rather than using a cumbersome authentication process, users could access Twitter’s video feed with just one click. Video quality was generally excellent. And the Twitter scroll provided a level of interactivity that TV networks could not match.

“It’s easy to use — it only takes one click,” Noto said. “The quality of video is good. It’s interactive.”

As many as 30 staffers crammed into that fifth-floor conference room — adorned with NFL logos — during the 10 “TNF” games this season to monitor the various feeds. About a dozen were there during the Cowboys-Vikings game, noshing on takeout pizza. Noto stopped in during the second quarter and studied a computer showing the number of concurrent users at the time. Twitter group product manager Jeff Ma also stopped by for a couple of minutes.

The group consisted of engineers who are looking for latency issues that they need to fix. None arose on Dec. 1. Members of Twitter’s business insights and data team had their laptops opened in front of them as they studied real-time viewing statistics. The sports partnerships group headed by Laura Froelich was well-represented, monitoring the different streams.

The Cowboys-Vikings game was Twitter’s biggest of the year. But there was hardly a celebratory vibe. It wasn’t as chaotic as a television production truck, but it seemed clear that the Twitter staffers were working toward a common goal. Under Noto, Twitter has decided that live video — anchored by sports programming — is the best way to grow.

“We think the strategy we’re following makes sense for Twitter,” Noto said.

In the next few months, as the NFL renegotiates its TNF streaming deal, the industry will find out if Twitter makes as much sense for the NFL.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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