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Volume 22 No. 19
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Snapchat latest darling as leagues tout ‘Stories’

Platform’s startling numbers turn heads throughout sports

During the NFL’s opening weekend, the league quietly participated in Snapchat’s “Live Stories” feature, which puts together relevant posts from fans attending games. The NFL “Live Stories” collected nearly 10 million views over a 24-hour period that weekend, an astoundingly high number given the lack of marketing and promotion around it.

Leagues and media companies have spent years floating in social media, testing what content is popular and trying to figure out how to make money from it. This year, those questions have been answered as several social media platforms have guaranteed revenue to carry league content.

Take the NFL, which has social media deals this season with Twitter and YouTube in addition to Snapchat. The huge volume of people watching NFL programming on those platforms has caught the attention of league executives. Just three weeks into the season, the NFL’s Snapchat content is still averaging right around 10 million views, league executives say. Earlier this year, sources say, ESPN logged a whopping 30 million views for some of its “Live Stories” around the Winter X Games.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but ESPN averaged around 14 million viewers for its two opening “Monday Night Football” games on Sept. 14 ­— games that are generally among the highest-rated on cable.

“These are TV-sized audiences for each individual posting,” said Vishal Shah, NFL vice president of media strategy and business development. “Video is becoming even more of a core asset across every social platform. They are all investing in acquiring video content pretty heavily. Video is driving the most usage and the most minutes watched and ultimately the biggest audience.”

Jason Witten (top) and J.J. Watt have been among the NFL players featured through Snapchat.

The unique part of the video push across social platforms is that it comes without a heavy marketing or promotional push; Snapchat and Twitter’s users find the content organically. YouTube video views are aided by Google search.

NBC Sports Group executives have seen the same trends and are finalizing plans to use social media in a big way around the network’s 2016 Rio Olympics coverage. NBC Sports is in talks with BuzzFeed and top social platforms to craft and distribute bite-sized bits of Olympic video content, NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel said. Deals are still months away, but Zenkel said “we’re in the throes of some very interesting discussions” with BuzzFeed, a media startup in which NBCUniversal invested $200 million in August. NBC hopes to take advantage of BuzzFeed’s strength in creating media ideal for social sharing, which contributes 75 percent of BuzzFeed’s 200 million monthly unique visitors.

“I don’t see the way in which we present — or how [Olympics Executive Producer] Jim [Bell] presents — the Olympics on television completely morphing into two-minute BuzzFeed clips, but I do see a sensibility and an expertise that we are going to open ourselves up to,” Zenkel said during a panel discussion at Advertising Week in New York last week. “They speak to an audience that is critical to our success, and being engaged with these various companies is going to raise the level of our game.”

Because the NFL is the country’s biggest and most popular sport, it has the leverage to cut the best deals. All other sports leagues, like MLB, the NBA, NHL and NASCAR, are active participants in social media.

Now that social media platforms have matured, they are starting to guarantee revenue.

YouTube and Twitter guarantee the NFL payments in their deals. Because Snapchat is a newer platform, it shares ad revenue from “branded snaps” inserted into the stories with the NFL. All leagues are tight-lipped about how much revenue these types of deals generate.

One of the reasons the NFL has not been able to cut a Facebook deal this season is over revenue disagreements, sources said. Facebook and the NFL still are talking and the league still puts some of its content on Facebook, such as the NFL Network series “A Football Town,” which premiered on Facebook.

“NFL content on these platforms has engagement rates that are multiples higher than other forms of content,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL senior vice president of media strategy, business development and sales. “We also think there’s ways to monetize that engagement. We’re learning that there are new monetization models that we’re working through. We’re working with advertisers on new ways on a Snapchat or Twitter to figure out the monetization model.”

Both NFL and NBC executives believe bigger social media presences do not compete with television; rather, they both have found that social media helps TV ratings.

During the 2012 London and 2014 Sochi Olympics, for example, NBC said it found that the social media conversation served as a reminder for casual viewers to tune in to NBC’s prime-time broadcast. NBC executives also believe that the social channels help establish the Games as a cultural event that transcends sports.

“There was some indication that the more you circulated the good news about what is going on in the Olympics, the greater the appetite was to consume it, especially in prime time,” Zenkel said.

That consumer behavior mirrors the NFL’s experience with the in-progress highlights it puts on Twitter and YouTube. NFL executives say the highlights not only bring eyeballs on the various social platforms, but they have contributed to the NFL’s record-high TV numbers over the past several years.

“We know these platforms, just by their sheer size, are getting more share of mind from our fans, so they are important for us,” Schroeder said. “We’re continuing to evolve with the marketplace. But it’s all in an integrated fashion, where we’re excited to work with the platforms and expand our reach on them. We’re also excited to use those platforms to drive more value back to our existing content relationships.”