Twitter Broadcasts: How NFL Deal Moves the Goalposts


Most of us in the communications community have following the gradual evaporation of the parameters around social media/tech companies for some time now.

Ever since Google (once a mere search engine) moved into high-tech spectacles and the company once known as Apple Mackintosh Computers started rolling out their range of delightful wrist-wear, the 21st Century’s most powerful companies have been expanding activity at an astounding rate.

And while someone like Google may, at times, appear to be driven by a desire for world domination akin to that of Terminator overlords Skynet, this week’s landmark social broadcast deal marked a fascinating enterprise into the unknown for two of the world’s most scrutinised organisations.

Twitter has secured the rights to live stream Thursday night games for the National Football League (American football’s premier multi-billion dollar competition, for the uninitiated) for the very first time, including Periscope access to behind-the-scenes footage and exclusive social content.

Now, it’s easy to argue that, over the last 18 months, the NFL has been a magnet for the kind of PR that would keep even the most embattled AD up at night. From player domestic violence scandals to Supreme Court trials against its biggest stars, America’s richest sports league has been a target for people and organisations across the social and political spectrum.

However, one thing has remained constant throughout these turbulent times: the public still watch. In their billions.

The league may be a touchdown behind the rest of the world in the self-awareness and social progressiveness stakes, but it has always been several points ahead of the curve in the self-marketing and media innovation standings.

The NFL has been playing games outside of the US for more than 30 years, decades before the first basketball game was held at the O2 or the Premier League’s ‘39th Game’ fiasco was even thought about. American Football was also a mainstay of late-night viewing on terrestrial telly as long ago as the 1980s, meaning that, of all the transatlantic sports, it is the one which has fostered the most fans and the most committed ones to boot.

But this latest venture is much more than an extra few games on TV for the baying masses every season, it could mark the beginning of the greatest sea change in the history of sports broadcasting.

As shows like Game of Thrones have shown us, being part of the social media conversation surrounding a broadcast is now a vital part of the 2016 user experience, and this is no more acutely important than during real-time sports coverage. And as the inexorable rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO Now pushes television content further towards the ‘bulk release’ model as standard, it isn’t difficult to envisage a time in the not-too-distant future when the only live broadcasts of note are news and sporting events.

I mean, The Likely Lads showed us back in 1973 that there are real and present dangers to being out of live game loop.

In many ways, Twitter has long been a trillion-capacity digital stadium full of fans from across the globe, arguing the toss in real-time about every decision and flash-point for the last decade. It’s just common sense to play the game itself in the very same stadium.

We may be a long way from seeing a similar deal struck the Premier League (Sky and BT will pay a combined £5.1 billion in TV rights next season alone), expect the smaller, more progressive sports such as cricket to follow the NFL’s lead. Last month’s first-round game between Pakistan and hosts India at the World T20 tournament saw 22 million interactions between 8.2 million unique users on Facebook alone, and its openness to new tech and foothold in some of the world’s biggest markets make it the ideal test case.

But more than that, I am in absolutely no doubt that NFL games are just the first big name in Twitter’s broadcast portfolio, and that Facebook, Instagram and others will follow suit in due course.

Live, real-time news broadcasting in particular would seem to fit perfectly into this stable, and I don’t just mean in its current user-generated form of short videos and Vines. A fully Twitter-hosted 24-hour news streaming service is, to me, the next logical step and one which we need to be prepared for.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

What we, as PRs, brand builders, marketers and broadcasters need to recognise is that the lines between the event and the public conversation about the event will continue to blur until we can barely tell where one ends and the other begins, and this is both a daunting challenge and an exciting leap into the unknown.

Today’s audience member has never been more powerful, meaning that PR campaigns and communication strategies no longer have anywhere to hide.

To paraphrase Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday’, ours is a game of inches. And the goalposts are moving all the time.

By Jamie Stanley

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