Twitter Gets NFL Thursday Night Games for a Bargain Price

Twitter Will Stream Thursday Night NFL Games
  • Company said to pay around $10 million to live-stream 10 games
  • 'We did not take the highest bidder on the table,' said NFL

Twitter Inc. just did its first broadcast deal, and it’s a big one. The company will stream 10 Thursday night National Football League games during the 2016 season, a package that cost the service around $10 million, according to a person familiar with the matter.

This is a triumph for Twitter, which is struggling to attract new users and expand its content beyond the posts of journalists, politicians and celebrities. Success with NFL games will also pave the way for more video deals that could include other professional sports, political content, and eventually entertainment, Chief Financial Officer Anthony Noto said in an interview.

“This is one element of a much broader strategy to provide the next generation of real-time content,” said Noto, who was the NFL’s Chief Financial Officer until 2010. He joined Twitter in 2014, and last year the social media company signed an agreement to distribute NFL highlights and other clips.

For the NFL, this is a chance to experiment. The league is aware that a growing number of households are comfortable streaming video over the Internet, and this is an opportunity to appeal to so-called cord-cutters, as former cable-TV subscribers are known. The NFL has streamed selected games, but this is its first season-long streaming deal.

Twitter will probably package the games alongside a live feed of curated tweets and stream all of it on its site and mobile app, the person said. Other web sites will also be able to embed Twitter’s live stream, which gives the company and the NFL a much wider digital reach than the 66 million Americans who currently use the service. They will also be broadcast on NBC, CBS and the NFL Network, the NFL said in a statement Tuesday.

Twitter bid for the package against a slate of heavyweights including Verizon Communications Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. The NFL is America’s most-watched sport by a wide margin; even Thursday night games, which draw smaller audiences than the contests on Sundays and Mondays, attracted about 17 million viewers last season.

At around $1 million per game, Twitter is paying a small fraction of what would seem to be the market rate. Yahoo paid $17 million to stream a single game from London, which was played at 9:30 a.m. New York time and also broadcast on network TV in the teams’ home markets. In the most recent broadcast deal, CBS Corp. and Comcast Corp.’s NBC each paid about $45 million a game for five Thursday night contests each during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

“We did not take the highest bidder on the table,” said Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s executive vice president of media, of the Twitter deal. “The platform is built around live events already. We want to see how they use the unique platform, and syndicated tweets all over the Internet is going to be interesting.”

After modest gains in early trading on Tuesday, Twitter shares fell 0.2 percent to $17.05 at 11:34 a.m. in New York. They had fallen 26 percent this year through Monday.

Twitter also controls some of the advertising inventory for the games, Chief Operating Officer Adam Bain said in a post on Twitter. The deal “continues our strategy to build world’s best daily connected audience that watches together and can talk with one another in real-time,” he wrote.

By using Thursday night games to experiment with different kinds of media, distribution models and technologies, the NFL is preparing for its next round of negotiations. The league’s biggest broadcast contracts expire in 2021, and by then it will be ready to sell a broad array of digital rights -- and make more money.

This effort has included using new outlets to try and reach more viewers, especially on their mobile phones. The league also has a mobile distribution pact with Verizon that gives the carrier rights to stream games to wireless customers’ smartphones. 

Verizon had been considered one of favorites in the race for the NFL’s Thursday night games, but the NFL was interested in more diverse options, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

“This is a bigger strategic effort for Twitter than it would have been for any other of the reported companies,” said James Cakmak, an analyst at Monness Crespi Hardt & Co. “It’s not just winning the deal -- that’s the easy part. It will be interesting to see how exactly they plan to leverage it.”

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