Whether it's sound business management or a megalomaniacal compulsion to dominate the headlines, few can argue that the National Football League hasn't done its best to keep its five-month season on the hearts and minds of fans even during the depths of the offseason. And just when the nation's sports fans were ready to pull their baseball gloves from under their mattresses and tune into Major League Baseball's Opening Day festivities, the NFL inserted itself back into the national conversation with a major announcement: 10 of its "Thursday Night Football" games will stream directly to Twitter for the 2016–17 season.
It's news enough that the NFL appears to be robbing the NFL Network, its own proprietary TV channel, of the one exclusive game per week it could dangle in front of fans. However, the particulars of the deal — along with how sports media content is evolving on new media platforms — could create the conditions of a make-or-break moment for social commerce.
First, take a look at why the NFL made a handshake deal with Twitter as opposed to the other companies (Amazon, Verizon and Facebook) rumored to have been in the running for the partnership. It's been widely reported that, at $10 million, Twitter's offer to the NFL was one of, if not the lowest, on the table. Moreover, it seems like the NFL cut Twitter a massive deal compared to streaming deals it's made in the past. In 2015, Yahoo forked over $20 million for the rights to live stream a single game — and not a particularly exciting one between the Buffalo Bills (yuck) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (yuck again).
But, of course, these numbers pale in comparison to what the NFL's traditional cable broadcast partners pay for rights to show its content. In February, CBS and NBC submitted a joint bid that saw them pony up $450 million for the privilege of broadcasting five TNF games each over the next two seasons.
It appears, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the NFL chose Twitter for its TNF livestream experiment — and make no mistake that this is an experiment — based on something Twitter could offer that the microblogging platform's dollars could not.
Could that something be the future of social commerce in sports media consumption as we know it?
To keep its traditional broadcast partners happy, the NFL couldn't very well sign over exclusive advertising rights to Twitter during streamed TNF games, but it did throw the social media platform a bone: about 30 percent of all ad slots will be left to Twitter's marketing discretion. An in-the-know source told Adweek that Twitter is also looking into leveraging region-targeted ads as a function of its global broadcast range. It's not enough for Twitter execs to re-line their houses with hundred dollar bills after its unicorn-busting IPO, but the agreement already has Twitter's advertising partners, like Bank of America SVP and enterprise media executive Lou Paskalis, seeing dollar signs.
"The NFL got it right," Paskalis told Adweek. "Twitter gives us a real path to connect around relevant cultural moments in a way that other advertisements do not."
What makes a 30 percent share of ad space on a streaming TNF game more worthwhile to advertisers than the 70 percent still available on traditional broadcast formats? Sure, a part of it might be Twitter's reach on mobile. Sure, a part of it could be Twitter's progressive success with its Amplify-backed Moments platform.
But a paradigm shift in how consumers are soaking up their sports media content — and the ads attached to it — would make that 30 percent of ad space on Twitter a gold mine, no matter the relative share.
Whether by design or happenstance, the National Basketball Association has already seen this sea change in consumption habits among its fans. The New Republic broke down this phenomenon in January, outlining how the once-fractious, TV-based world of basketball sports media — including everything from real-time analysis, replays, jeers at opposing teams and much more — has coalesced through collectivizing hashtags and Moments into a unified experience for consumers. Sports and culture writer Ezekiel Kweku described the experience of watching an NBA game on TV with Twitter on a second screen as "like watching in a dive bar that’s got the funniest and most insightful fans available."
What has this engagement wrought, though? For the NBA's official twitter account, it's wrought 3.6 million more followers than that of the NFL's.
And that's all without a single game streamed.
It's all part of a pivot from sports as something ephemeral to sports as product that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been pushing since he came into the role in 2014. "At the end of the day, we're a media company," Silver told Bloomberg in February. "Our games are content."
Regardless of how many Twitter followers the NBA has, the NFL remains, without a doubt, the most popular sport in the U.S, and it's testament to the entertainment product the NFL puts out that it's managed to do so while just now dipping its toes into the waters of serious livestreaming and social media engagement. But the ecosystem of football has produced just as many, if not more, pundits, comedians, analysts and gif/Vine creators than the NBA. If the anchor point of a TNF game streaming on Twitter can glue fans' eyes to a Twitter timeline instead of a TV, how can those elements — peripheral but necessary to the actual game — not follow, too?
These pieces have been in place, though not together, for a while. Social engagement in sports is high, and advertisers' willingness to spend on ads during games is astronomical (just look at Super Bowl spots). If the NFL-Twitter streaming deal can bring just a fraction of its fans onto their second screens — not on the merits of the game itself but on that of a connectivity with the wider sports world that traditional broadcasts can't provide — the whole thing may take on the look of a snowball rolling down a mountainside.
It's social commerce's proof-of-concept moment — a $10 million bet from Twitter that football fans aren't just ready to watch their games in a new way, along with the new ad opportunities that come with it, but rather that they've been ready for this much longer than sports and media organizations have been themselves.