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What Losing the NFL Deal Means for Twitter

Twitter investors weren’t too shocked by Tuesday’s news that Amazon had won the rights to stream the next season of the NFL’s Thursday Night Football: Twitter’s stock briefly dipped at the opening of the markets Wednesday, but quickly recovered and actually veered into positive territory as the morning progressed.

That measured reception is noteworthy by itself, since Twitter investors have long been skittish, sending the stock on a downward spiral every time they see a bad omen. But it also raises the question: How big of a loss is the NFL deal for Twitter, and what does it mean for the company’s live video strategy going forward?

Twitter hasn’t disclosed how much ad revenue it was able to generate with the NFL live streams, but the company was reportedly looking to sell as much as $50 million in ad revenue against the ten games.  That would have meant that a $10 million bet on Thursday Night Football was a success — but $50 million would have been too high of a price tag, which is why investors kept their cool Wednesday.

But the NFL live streams weren’t just a way for Twitter to sell ads. In many ways, they were an ad for Twitter itself, as the service tried to reintroduce itself to the public as the place to go for live sports and news. And as such, it actually seemed to work, judging from some of the numbers disclosed by the company.

Twitter’s Thursday Night Football didn’t get anywhere close to traditional TV audiences — which is perhaps not a surprise, given the fact that the games also aired on television at the same time — but they did drive some notable engagement.

The first game of the season got a total of 2.1 million viewers, compared to 15.4 million viewers who tuned in via CBS and the NFL Network. Twitter did count anyone streaming the game for at least 3 seconds as a viewer, but on average, viewers actually tuned in for 22 minutes. The average simultaneous audience of that game was 243,000 viewers.

Twitter was also able to handily beat all other digital platforms that carried the game, including NFL Mobile from Verizon, the NFL Gamepass, and TV Everywhere audiences from CBS and the NFL Network. 87.5 percent of all digital viewers tuned in via Twitter. The service even improved its numbers throughout the season, with the final game attracting an audience of 3.1 million viewers.

Now, Twitter wants to convince those millions of users to come back, and tune in to other sports and news streams. The company said as much in a statement sent to Variety Tuesday evening, which emphasized all of those other live streams:

“Since last year, we have collaborated on over 40 live stream partnerships and we will continue to bring the best live content to our customers around the world. In Q1 2017, we aired more than 800 hours of live stream content from over 400 events across sports, news, politics and entertainment. The NFL was a great partner to launch our strategy and we will continue to work with them to bring great content to our passionate sports fans. ”

Some of these live efforts include big marquee deals. Later this week, Twitter will start streaming one MLB game per week. And a few days ago, Twitter COO Anthony Noto even floated the idea of working with British TV networks to get access to Premiere League soccer games.

But the company has also been working to get a wider pool of professional live content on its platform, giving publishers the ability to stream and monetize broadcast-quality content via Periscope without the need to strike expensive deals upfront. It has also increasingly been looking to strike regional deals to get access to sports rights that aren’t tied up with the big networks in the U.S.

The real question is whether Twitter is ready for a huge influx of live programming. The company unveiled a live video app for Apple TV and other streaming devices in time for the first NFL stream last summer, but has been slow to improve discoverability of live content on mobile. Twitter only recently began to add live video to Moments, and a new explore tab that puts a bigger emphasis on live streams has yet to launch on Android.

The company has long had issues with shipping new products and features in a timely fashion, and its foray into live video seems to be plagued by the same problems. In that context, Twitter’s investors likely got it right: Twitter dipped a toe in the waters with last season’s NFL deal, but the company clearly wasn’t ready to go all in, and commit to a much more expensive deal.

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