Twitter: a muted 10th birthday - can the NFL deal turn its fortunes around?
Twitter: a muted 10th birthday - can the NFL deal turn its fortunes around?
A view from Jody MacDonald

How Twitter's deal with NFL puts it at the centre of social sport

Twitter this week made a play to challenge perceptions of its stagnation with a headline-grabbing deal to stream a package of live NFL games, writes...

The deal - and the sales process that preceded it, involving Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and others – has attracted widespread media attention and provided insight into the evolving relationship between the worlds of social, digital and sport that could have big implications for fans, sponsors and broadcasters.

Twitter’s tenth birthday this year was a muted party. User growth had stalled; numbers for the last quarter of 2015 remaining flat at 320m subscribers – the same as the previous quarter.

Rival social media platforms had seen numbers improve, with even Instagram, launched four years later, overtaking Twitter. The company also reported a net loss of $90m – with a resulting fall in share price.

Sport is Twitter's bright spot

The one good news story for Twitter in recent times has been its relationship with sport.

The instantaneous nature of the platform combined with some innovative partnerships with sports rights holders (including the NFL) for highlights clips and behind-the-scenes content has seen Twitter become a go-to second screen companion for live sport.

Sport and the passion and engagement that it generates has become a key battleground for social media platforms.

Twitter’s offering is the envy of many of its competitors, including Facebook, which launched its own dedicated second screen sport feature in January 2016 and was thought to be an early contender for the live NFL streaming rights.  

Although few predicted Twitter would win these rights, its move into live streaming of sports events makes a lot of sense. It seems the company will be streaming the coverage of the NFL’s traditional US broadcast partners, so advertising sales opportunities will be limited.

But Twitter will be able to innovate around its use of Periscope for pre-match, behind-the-scenes content and, perhaps most importantly, it will gather valuable information on exactly who tunes in to watch and what they do while they’re watching.

If it can prove the concept with these rights, it will have a head start over its rivals when it comes to securing other similar sports rights in future deals, which may be more lucrative in terms of revenue generation.     

For the NFL, this deal allows it to use Twitter to complement its lucrative arrangements with traditional broadcasters in the US who will also be showing these matches (although internationally there may be some negative impact on licensed broadcasters and the fees they pay).

The NFL will be hoping that Twitter can unlock large new audiences internationally, including elusive millennials who are watching less TV. It can build on what it learnt from its first live streaming experiment with Yahoo in 2015 and, at the same time, is creating healthy competition for its rights from a powerful new sector.

Most sports bodies are in the process of learning how to stop viewing social media as a threat and instead using it to their advantage as a key channel for engagement with fans. They will also no doubt be watching the NFL/Twitter partnership with interest to understand how social media platforms may play a role in their own live media rights strategies going forward.

Meanwhile, if Twitter can make a success of live NFL rights and cement its position as the leading social media platform for sport (an economy said to be worth over $100bn) this may go some way to securing its own future.