For all of the ink dedicated to the rights deals Twitter has been making of late, it came down to execution of the actual product last night as it streamed Thursday Night Football (TNF) between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. Fans had some choice by watching on twitter.com, their mobile app or their three TV apps: Apple TV, Microsoft Xbox One or Amazon Fire TV.
The matchup was chock full of subplots, especially revolving around Bills head coach Rex Ryan, who used to coach the Jets. There’s also usually great buzz around Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and Bills running back LeSean McCoy.
This is all stuff that’s tailor-made for, oh, I don’t know, Twitter — the de facto smack board for live sports around the world.
Live commentary from fans has been one of the bedrocks of the service since its inception and Twitter is betting big on sports — especially the "live" part, with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey saying to investors in February, “We believe we can become the first screen for everything that’s happening now.”
Investors feel the ship is listing and Dorsey is keen to not only establish relevance but viability in the crowded ecosystem. Deals with the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Pac-12 show that the company is willing to put their chips down, even in the face of sluggish user growth and competition all over the place.
Last night was the coming-out party for the TNF deal — the first of 10 games streamed for a reported $10m — and there were certainly some plusses and minuses. The main gripes that I could find were a few minor streaming glitches (although it was much better than Yahoo’s streaming effort last year, which cost $20m for one game) and lagging between the video and Twitter streams. Overall, though, people seemed awfully happy.
“Overall, it was a high quality feed. I was on horrible hotel Wi-Fi for part of it. It was still working very well when viewed,” said Ian Schafer, founder and CEO of Deep Focus. “Actually, as I was looking at the Twitter comments underneath the video, there were more people complaining about their cable service than Twitter’s stream.”
My experience was quite positive as well — and mainly because Twitter wasn’t trying to do too much. It was obvious that stream stability was paramount and the company worked on that during previous, not-so-high-profile events. Lack of clutter was another. The inclination can be, at times, to jam too much stuff in and that muddles the experience. This was: 1) game, 2) Twitter stream.
That said, there is still ample room to grow.
“There are a couple of things that I would like to have better curated,” said Schafer. “The feed underneath the video was a little useless for me because they were aggregating literally the world's tweets I felt like in that. I did catch myself dipping in and out of it pretty frequently to go back to ... If you get a mention, for example, while you're watching that and you tap into your mentions, you lose the feed. There was some usage, UI/UX issues, that didn't work out, but I was impressed.”
Ads, the lifeblood of a free service, were conspicuously absent. Candidly, if there was a Domino’s “buy now” button floating in the stream, there is a good chance I would have clicked it. Schafer felt as though advertising could very much have been additive and not distracting to the product.
“This screen could have been amazing. There could have been dynamic, addressable ad insertion between quarters or between plays. They didn't do that,” said Schafer. “You could have been able to tap on any of the spots that were running and have something happen. That wasn't part of the deal. [But] I do think that's an inevitability.”
At the moment, Twitter deserves to bask in the glow of its debut. But, the next step in all of this is more along the lines of “What’s next?” Streaming isn’t something new, but this launch was very high-profile and a gamble — imagine the furor today if the stream had pulled a Yahoo and gone sideways.
“The fact that it did ‘just work’ is interesting,” noted Schafer. “It didn't need Twitter to happen that way. I watch sports any chance I can get, wherever I am. The ability to watch the Red Zone as a Verizon subscriber through the NFL app is pretty great. It is nice to have it, but it does, even on a phone, something that's primarily a streaming screen [and] takes up your whole screen. The fact that my first screen was also my second screen [for the TNF game], there was something to be said for that. It was nice to be able to interact with the content in that way, interact with other people in that way, even with just the marvel of how simply effective the broadcast was. I think it says more for the future of live broadcast than it might for Twitter.”
Indeed, the future of live broadcast being so ambulatory is a key consideration, but, in this case, Twitter may be building their own roadmap to success — opening up a can of worms — or both.
“[Twitter’s] biggest strength is unifying people that are all experiencing the same thing, or who are all interested in the same thing at the same time. It plays uniquely to Twitter’s strength,” said Schafer. “That said, it's like live sports doesn't need to be locked down to the television. I think you started a feed battle road, not just with Twitter, but with DirecTV now selling NFL Sunday Ticket to people that don't necessarily have to have the satellite. I just think we're going to see more and more, let's call it 'over the top,' or, 'direct ticket streamer access of live sports content.' Which I guess drives the costs up. They're going to be just more bitter fights for the rights for these things. It's no longer just going to be ESPN, ABC, Fox and CBS.”
As for the little blue bird, Schafer, with one caveat, walked away impressed.
“If I'm grading it on a curve, I think I'm going to say A-minus. I'm going to say that, yes, there are some obvious opportunities that they missed. There were no surprises. They met expectations, but they also exceeded expectations given how much scrutiny that company has been under. To be able to pull off a simultaneous experience for millions of people is not easy, no matter what the format, no matter what the technology. I think they did a nice job of that.”