Twitter and the NFL: The Halftime Report

Twitter and the NFL are in the middle of their 10-game Thursday Night Football live-streaming schedule, so it’s time for a halftime report.

tnftwitThe NFL is seeing a broadcast-ratings dip this season. Sports Illustrated suggests that’s due to a combination of factors, including the drama of the presidential election, a lack of star matchups, and schedule saturation. But one thing increasing viewership is the live-streaming Twitter offers for 10 Thursday-night games. Live streaming appears to be adding to overall viewing, not merely shifting it. Twitter has received positive reviews for its streams, whereas viewership is modest at a few hundred thousand per game.

To get an assessment of the Twitter and NFL partnership, we contacted representatives from both organizations. In an e-mail interview with Twitter CFO Anthony Noto, we asked what lessons his company had learned and how it planned to apply those lessons.

“There were a lot of lessons learned, and we are iterating at a fast pace,” he responded. “I think the best way to answer the question is that we feel like broadcast networks did when they aired their first televised sports broadcasts. Now, years later, the broadcast experience is well beyond what anyone could have imagined. It’s early for us. In fact, we like to say it’s Day 1, and we couldn’t be more excited to be pioneering a new way to enjoy live sports and live conversation in one centralized place.

“Specifically,” he continued, “we can look to offer more-personalized options in the timeline you follow while watching. We will also focus on building in more ways to discover our live product and make it seamless in finding what is important to you.”

What will the second half of the season look like? How will Twitter improve the live-video experience?

We want to continue to improve the overall experience in terms of product features in the video player, as well as the curated timelines,” Noto said. “We also want to build the awareness that Twitter is a dependable place to find what’s happening in live-streaming video and the conversation about those events. And we plan to expand our global offering of live sports, as well as live news, politics, and entertainment.”

That would be welcome, since there’s a growing appetite for live content online. What about video quality? Critics have been positive about Twitter’s HD NFL stream. Is the company happy with video quality and the amount of latency?

“We were very pleased with the high fidelity of the video as well as the low latency,” he noted. “Our team has done an incredible job in a short period of time to deliver on a great experience. We launched with our live-video player and curated tweet timeline on several connected-device partner platforms — including Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Xbox One — as well as web syndication partners Sports Illustrated, Time, and AOL. We will continue to look into partnering with additional syndication partners to broaden our reach. In addition, we want to continue to improve the live-video experience on this wide range of clients as well as on our mobile apps and desktop. We will also look into adding functionality that will allow you to multitask on Twitter while still viewing the video or having the audio play in the background.”

Its deal with Twitter wasn’t the NFL’s first experiment with live streaming, but it is the most significant. With the top content it offers, the NFL could have taken several different routes online. We asked an NFL spokesperson by e-mail if the league is happy with the results so far and got a peek into its reasoning for going with Twitter.

“We are pleased with the early results from our partnership with Twitter around Thursday Night Football,” said the spokesperson. “The most obvious reaction is how great the video looks on their platform, which was a key consideration. The numbers we are seeing on the Twitter platform for Thursday Night Football are in line with our expectations and show that we are really adding incremental audience to what the television broadcast brings to the table.

“One of the reasons we ultimately chose Twitter for this partnership,” the spokesperson continued, “is that their platform is so complementary to television. Twitter has shown the ability in many, many instances to drive audience to the television broadcast, and that’s what we were hoping they would do with this and what we feel they have done. The audience on Twitter is typically younger than what we see with our television broadcasts and predominately is accessing the stream via mobile devices.”

So, for the NFL, going online isn’t just a way to keep up with technology; it’s also a way to connect with younger viewers. It’s easier to put content where viewers are than to attract viewers to a different platform.

“Like the rest of the entertainment industry,” explained the NFL spokesperson, “we want to be in front of the next generation. … And, as we all know, more and more the next generation is accessing content and, in particular, large amounts of video on digital devices. In order to continue to grow the popularity of our game, we need to expose the next generation to NFL football, and that is why you are seeing us strategically pursue opportunities like this partnership with Twitter or our partnership with Snapchat.”

The NFL’s other big push online is NFL Now, which is both an online platform and an in-house studio for creating original online content. It offers several weekly shows, such as Celebration Station (about touchdown celebrations), Fashion Po-Po (player fashions), and NFL Trendzone (the week in social media). Every game day, it creates a long program called Game Day Blitz and even makes a show for Snapchat called NFL Remix. The effort seems to be paying off: the top 10 NFL Now clips on YouTube this season have attracted more than 2.5 million views.

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