Twitter's NFL deal could be just the start for sports rights

The first major foray from a tech company into sports streaming rights hasn't come from the round ball or the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple or Amazon. Instead it's Twitter who've made the first move, snapping up the global streaming rights to NFL's Thursday night games.

 Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

The deal is significant insofar as it's the one of the first times a social company has stepped from curator to broadcaster, if you overlook YouTube's deal with cricket's Indian Premier League in xxx, which always felt like more of an experiment. This is more akin to the first shot fired in what could be a long and messy battle.

Why it makes sense

The likes of Facebook, Amazon and Google are regularly mentioned whenever sports rights are up for sale. Certainly sport dominates online conversation and as Rupert Murdoch demonstrated back in 1992, fans are prepared to pay for coverage. Or at least migrate to whichever platform is broadcasting the game.

This is an obvious area of growth for Twitter who have struggled to attract new active users to their platform over the past year. NFL may be a North American sport, but there are enough fans around the world, who will sign up to Twitter (and Vine and Periscope) for the game and additional content.

For NFL, this is relatively low risk. The $10m Twitter have reportedly paid for the rights gives a sense of where they fit into the sport’s plans. It’s a fraction of the deal with NBC and CBS and half of what Yahoo paid last season to stream a one-off game.

Twitter’s global userbase will appeal to NFL, a sport still in the process of growing overseas. And NFL are pulling in plenty of dollars from other streaming deals both in the States and on mobile. This deal allows them to experiment with their product.

Finally, the userbase are familiar with Twitter. Thousands of sports Vines are shared across the platform on a daily basis. It’s where both hardcore fans and casual observers head to follow games in real time. The audience is already there and has potential to grow although there’s plenty of questions as to the logistics of how Twitter will stream the games.

Will Facebook follow? 

So why Twitter and not Facebook, Amazon, Google or Apple? Part of this may be down to control. The likes of Facebook and Amazon are not known for relinquishing control of their platforms. Neither is NFL, or the Premier League, FIFA, and other sports bodies. But if the two sides can resolve their differences then expect to see a flurry of streaming rights head to the tech giants.

Facebook, Amazon and others have had the capability to stream live events for many years, but have chosen not to make an aggressive move for rights yet. Back in 2011 Budweiser even streamed an FA Cup game through Facebook as part of a publicity stunt.

With Amazon engaged in a content war with the likes of Netflix and Facebook placing heavy emphasis on live video the tech giants are set up perfectly to start an assault on sports rights. While control may be an issue, few sports organisations are likely to say no to a new source of revenue.

What are the implications?

In the UK market Sky and BT are currently engaged in a battle for the Premier League rights. But it English football follows NFL then they may well need to join together against a common enemy.

Entry into sports rights have traditionally been prohibitively expensive. Over the years Sky has seen off challenges from Setanta and ESPN.

BT have given “the home of football” a headache by poaching the Champions League but if the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple decide to bid for any of the major rights then either broadcaster could be left exposed.

The £5.1bn broadcasters paid for Premier League rights could well increase in the next auction but there may be an interesting knock-on effect. Facebook and Twitter have made it easier than ever for anybody to broadcast live through their platforms.

For sports teams it opens up another potential revenue stream. Sky and BT could find themselves out of the loop altogether.