Earlier this month, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that Twitter had won the rights to stream Thursday Night Football games live on its platform. Interesting, sure – but surprising news? Not really. Despite its ‘Wall Street’ faults, Twitter does one thing better than any other platform - generate online chatter around live events. That viral juggernaut is most apparent with sports content, which is one of the last bastions of appointment television. Look at the Super Bowl, and most recently March Madness – the live events are a natural way for the social media outlet to further engage fans during games and take advantage of the community aspect that is unique to live sports viewing.
Ask ten people you know what the last thing they viewed live was and eight of them will tell you, a sporting event. The others may cite the occasional awards show and possibly the news, but most consumers dictate their own program guide through recording a program via a DVR, watching on demand, or signing up for a streaming service like Hulu or Netflix, which in turn makes appointment viewing seem almost passé. This is why sports pose such a unique opportunity. These events inspire something that is the very reason we love sports in the first place – fandom. Whether watching at home, at a local bar, or chatting with millions of fans via social media, the conduit to this shared experience is that it is happening in real-time, and often being watched through a traditional TV network. Thursday Night Games will still be available on television through traditional cable partners, but the decision by the NFL to partner with Twitter demonstrates a shift in the sports market, as leagues continue to explore options to take advantage of their most valuable asset – live sports. Is this new partnership, and more importantly, consumption model a sign of things to come for the future of sports viewing?
Focus on fan engagement
Now more than ever, sports viewing is all about the fans. Twitter, with its over 500 million users and 350,000 tweets per minute, has from its inception been a driving force for interaction. The Twitter era has given fans an instant feedback loop and with little help from the leagues or team has created what those organizations are always chasing – fan engagement. The NFL’s decision to partner with Twitter shows the importance placed by those leagues and teams on fan engagement. For someone watching a live sporting event, Twitter has always been a great companion channel to engage in real-time – need proof, look no further than the tweets per minutes during the Super Bowl. With this partnership, Twitter and the NFL are creating a single-screen experience where fans can view and engage within the same platform.
In the months since the NFL announced it was seeking a digital streaming partner, we saw the list of usual suspects - Facebook and Amazon - looked to throw their hats in the ring. While live sports consumption is certainly not the core business of these tech behemoths, they too recognized the value of not only engagement with their platforms, but real-time fan engagement. The consumption of sports is at an inflection point, and fan engagement will be the driving factor in shaping how sports leagues and broadcast networks keep their current foothold, continually expand, and incorporate digital experiences into their offerings.
Broadcast’s stranglehold on sports could be weakening
Historically, TV-networks have the upper-hand, with a multi-billion dollar hold on the sports viewing market. While this is not likely to change anytime soon, the NFL’s selection of Twitter, OTT sports offerings from providers like Sling TV, and the rumblings that Watch ESPN could go directly to consumers, supports that sports leagues are increasingly open to exploring new delivery models from less traditional providers, and the broadcast control on the market might not be so definitive.
Should these traditional providers see these new entrants as a threat? The easy answer is absolutely – they are nimbler, offer different models, and often times are more suited to today’s digital consumer. The real answer though is quite the opposite – the traditional providers are at the doorstep of an enormous opportunity. By creating innovative multi-screen experiences, shifting delivery models, and packaging this content together like no one else can, these traditional providers can keep their already captive audience. Whether it is introducing new, more personalized bundle options or cross-device streaming options, in order to compete for future sports rights, traditional providers need to look for new ways they can engage today’s sports fans.
Live sports viewing needs to be personal
The ten-foot, ultra high-definition Thursday Night Football viewing experience is one that fans will always crave, but today more and more fans are seeking out alternative methods to access content on their favorite teams and players. That glowing box in the living room is no longer the singular experience and has shifted toward each member of the family in that same room, but on their own device. With the audience right at their fingertips, this is where social media sites like Twitter and sports apps have built a groundswell, enabling fans to engage from more devices and locations.
As the way we consume sports continues to evolve, the need for varied options when it comes to how we are viewing content, and what content is being viewed will increase. Whether it’s not missing your favorite team live while at the airport, or making last minute trades for your fantasy team on your mobile, the need for cross-device, personal viewing options is crucial to engaging today’s fans.
As each new season starts, the sports viewing landscape has and will continue to evolve, especially around large events such as the Olympics and the Super Bowl. The Twitter-NFL partnership is a testament to the opportunities that exist for both broadcast networks and digital players to leverage the that trait most unique to sports, fandom and the avenue to most effectively harness that fandom – live sports.
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