It’s not at all surprising that the NFL is reevaluating partners for the free, live-streaming games, as league execs have described the distribution strategy as experimental. Note that the NFL is not betting the farm here: The “TNF” package comprises only 10 games — just 4% of the 256 regular-season matchups. And Twitter shelled out $10 million for the worldwide internet streaming rights to “TNF,” which is a rounding error compared with the approximately $5 billion annually the NFL gets from TV broadcasters.
Meanwhile, big digital-video platforms have clearly signaled that they’re hungry to acquire live sports to attract and retain users.
Twitter is leading its video-ad push with live sports deals, including a pact to stream Major League Baseball and NHL games this year. Facebook (which confirmed that it bid for the NFL’s “TNF” games last year) is looking to get MLB games as well, and has acquired live-streaming rights to Major League Soccer and Mexico’s Liga MX matches to U.S. users under a pact with Univision. And Amazon has assembled a team that’s looking to acquire live sports programming as well.
The NFL and the companies reportedly bidding for “Thursday Night Football” digital rights declined to comment.
Twitter, in reporting Q4 2016 earnings last month, said the “Thursday Night Football” live-streams averaged about 3.5 million unique viewers per game — topping the high end of its expectations, according to COO/CFO Anthony Noto. He added that 50% of the Twitter audience for the NFL live streams was less than 25 years old.
“The NFL was really interested in reaching a new audience, and they’re interested in reaching a younger audience and a non-U.S. audience and a more diverse gender split,” Noto told analysts. “We were able to accomplish that with them.” How much the NFL deal really moved the needle for Twitter in the grand scheme of things, however, is unclear.
On TV, NFL ratings were notably depressed last season, and the league is now looking at cutting back the ad load with its broadcasting partners. CBS’s average TV audience for the five “TNF” games it aired last fall were down 16% year-over-year; those games on CBS plus the simulcast on NFL Network had an average TV audience of 14.72 million.