For those of you who missed the news this morning while recovering from the incredible NCAA championship game last night, the NFL announced a deal to stream its Thursday night games on Twitter. Everyone is still trying to figure out all of the details of how it will work, but the NFL has made it clear that watching the games on Twitter will be free.
The deal is reflective of a shift in the way that fans are engaging with sports content. No, internet viewership will not going replace television overnight. According to a 2013 AdWeek article, 94% of fans still tune into sports broadcasts on television. However, there is a clear long-term trend toward a move to online and mobile. In 2013, 64% of fans went online for sports content compared with 56% in 2011 and 35% use mobile, up from 21% in 2011.
Many people simply assume the dominance of “the big four” (Football, Basketball, Baseball, Hockey) in sports entertainment. However, the finals of the eSport ‘League of Legends’ were watched by 27 million people in 2014, surpassing viewership of game 7 of the World Series that year (23.5 million viewers), and the game 5 clincher of the NBA Finals that year (18 million viewers). I would argue that the gains being made by ‘League’ and other eSports on mainstream sports is reflective of far superior engagement with modern audiences.
eSports have incredibly accessible live stream online platforms and the impact of this accessibility is amplified by the fact that there isn’t really a “season” per se. For instance, I’m a huge fan of Super Smash Bros. Melee and in any given month of the year there will be 1-2 major national tournaments hosting most of the game’s top players. When there isn’t a major tournament going on, there will still be regional and local tournaments featuring several high level players. I can go to a streaming site like Twitch on any weekend of the year and instantly be able to watch a high level eSports at no cost. On top of that, every stream features a live chat where you are encouraged to share your thoughts with other fans. Watching an eSports tournament isn’t a passive act—it’s a complete, interactive, freely accessible experience.
Compare that to the NHL where fans have been banned from using Periscope to broadcast their experience to their friends. Compare that to MLB.TV where I can pay $85 for a subscription and still have several games blacked out. I’m a huge Yankee fan, but when I was in college, I did not watch anywhere near as many games as I would have had the games had been broadcast in a platform more similar to Twitch. While I get that it’s more difficult for a normal sport to create content in the offseason, that is all the more reason to make the in-season experience more dynamic than ever. In an age where baseball and hockey are fighting to remain relevant with younger audiences, making broadcasts more freely accessible and interactive online is something that at least needs to be taken into consideration.
This is why the NFL on Twitter deal is so brilliant. The NFL noticed that people were tweeting about the games while watching on TV. To test if they can maximize the value of this trend, they’re broadcasting Thursday night games on Twitter, allowing them to measure how the move affects fan engagement at a smaller scale. If the Twitter broadcasts are successful, I am sure we will not only see more games on Twitter in the future, but also further increases in the interactivity of fan experiences. Unless other sports leagues follow suit and find more ways to adapt to modern fans, you can expect the dominance of the big four sports to continue to shrink.