Twitter signs deal to stream Thursday night NFL games

Twitter isn't the first place you think of for premium video streaming, but it is the premium destination for real-time content, making the Twitter-NFL partnership more ideal than it seems on the surface.


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Twitter just cemented its reputation as the social network for sports fans. Twitter just won the rights to stream 10 Thursday night football games for the 2016-2017 NFL season with originating broadcasts from CBS and NBC. The games will also be simulcast on the NFL Network, which the league calls a “tri-cast” distribution model that covers broadcast TV, cable, and online.

The broadcasts will be free and won’t require cable authentication or a Twitter account. The games will be only half the show, however. Twitter also plans to continue distributing NFL highlights as it does now, and there will be pre-game Periscope broadcasts from individual players and teams.

Twitter apparently beat out many other heavyweights in the technology industry to win the streaming contract, including Amazon, Facebook, Verizon, and Yahoo, according to an earlier report by Bloomberg. Bloomberg notably makes no mention of Google’s YouTube, which just a year ago was considered a potential winner for the rights to Thursday night games for the 2016-2017 season.

This is Twitter’s first stab at producing major media events, but not its first experience with the NFL. Twitter signed a two-year deal with the league last August to distribute game highlights to its users, as Recode reported at the time.

The story behind the story: For the NFL, having technology companies bid on its product for online streaming is a preparatory move for the near future. Thursday’s games aren’t as popular as Sunday and Monday games, as Bloomberg points out. That gives the NFL an opportunity to experiment with online services until the league’s major broadcast TV contracts expire in 2021. By then, online streaming may be a standard way for premium entertainment to be watched. If that’s the case, the NFL would have the experience it needs to transition to an online service.

Room to grow

Bloomberg figures that Twitter would likely package its Thursday night streams as part of the Moments section of Twitter, or something similar. That way games could be featured among notable tweets with links to game previews, fantasy football analysis, and pre-game tweets from players.

What Twitter really wants from the NFL streams, however, is for more people to sign-up and start using the service—user growth is a key metric watched closely by the company’s stockholders.

That allure may come from the potential to have online conversations during the game via Twitter. Doing that will require a Twitter account and plays on Twitter’s strength as the first destination for real-time information and conversation.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell even said as much in a written statement announcing the deal: “There is a massive amount of NFL-related conversation happening on Twitter during our games and tapping into that audience...will ensure Thursday Night Football is seen on an unprecedented number of platforms this season.”

As you’re watching the game, for example, a real-time ticker of game-related Tweets could be on the screen encouraging you to participate. Twitter could also offer NFL-focused follow lists for football fans or key people to follow from your favorite teams. On top of that, the mere novelty of Periscope may encourage more sign-ups for Twitter’s real-time video platform.

That is all speculation, however. We should know more about what football on Twitter will look like as we get closer to the season, which starts Thursday, September 8.

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