The NFL dipped its toes into the waters of digital distribution during the 2015 season, but more is on the way, and soon. After Yahoo knocked down the barrier with a digital broadcast of a game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills in London, Twitter will take the reins in 2016 with 10 Thursday Night Football games.
“Twitter is where live events unfold and is the right partner for the NFL as we take the latest step in serving fans around the world live NFL football,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “There is a massive amount of NFL-related conversation happening on Twitter during our games and tapping into that audience, in addition to our viewers on broadcast and cable, will ensure Thursday Night Football is seen on an unprecedented number of platforms this season. This agreement also provides additional reach for those brands advertising with our broadcast partners.”
What exactly the streams will look like remains to be seen, but Twitter provided a bit of a preview of its capabilities by broadcasting some Wimbledon matches.
As Goodell notes, the Twitter streams will come in addition to games being shown on broadcast and cable. When Twitter is streaming a Thursday Night Football broadcast, the game will also be available on NFL Network and either CBS or NBC.
But it’s a reality that games are likely to increasingly switch to digital streaming and possibly become exclusively available on the Internet.
“There’s no doubt it’s coming,” Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said on PFT Live. “The question is how we transition into it. What we need to do is do a great job of listening to our fans about how they want to consume NFL content. Our fans are switching to digital, they’re switching to handheld and mobile devices, and we want to respond to that.”
The Cardinals responded to it with an offseason docuseries on the 2015 season called All or Nothing, which was hosted by Amazon in partnership with NFL Films. The series is free to watch and exclusively online, which is a place Goodell thinks the NFL needs to continue to go.
“We think this is a significant shift obviously in the media landscape. It’s something that we have to be at the forefront of,” Goodell said in March. “As technology gets better, this is only going to be a growing opportunity for us. So we are going to take our time.”
It’s a profitable venture, too. While Twitter paid $10 million for the broadcasting rights to 10 Thursday games, the social media site is hoping to sell $50 million in ad space. According to Recode, Twitter hopes to sell in-game ads, pre-roll ads and Periscope streams, and has already managed to sell about 60 percent of that ad inventory.
That’s a much better return than Yahoo received when it shelled out $20 million for the broadcasting rights to a mostly inconsequential game between subpar teams in 2015. While Yahoo had exclusive broadcasting rights (unlike Twitter, which will share the rights with NFL Network and broadcast networks), it had to offer discounted ads and had an average viewership of 2.36 million per minute, much less than the 10 to 20 million viewers that television broadcasts typically average.
If Twitter manages to turn digital streaming into a profitable business, the shift away from television broadcasts could be swift. And it’s not just the NFL, either. The league’s deal with Yahoo and Twitter has reportedly pushed other major American sports leagues closer to transitioning to digital, as well.
“When the NFL deal was announced, it resonated even louder [with other sports leagues],” Twitter CFO Anthony Noto told Recode. “Their pace of negotiation and urgency increased.”
For now, television will still be the way most sports fans take in the action, but those days may be coming to an end sooner rather than later.