Last Thursday, Twitter live-streamed an NFL game for the first time ever, between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. And this Thursday it will do it again, with a matchup that could interest far more fans: the New England Patriots and Houston Texans. Twitter gets to stream 10 NFL games this season in total.
But the numbers are in for Twitter’s first run at this, and many say they’re low.
2.1 million people watched on Twitter at some point — with a per-minute average audience of just 243,000. The New York Post called it “only a modest success.” CNNMoney wrote “the numbers pale in comparison to TV viewership.”
Well, of course they do. That’s not a worthwhile comparison.
Twitter has been around for 10 years; to expect it to pull in numbers anywhere close to network television yet is laughable. That it got 2.1 million people, or 14% of the average TV audience (15.4 million people watched the Thursday game last week on CBS or the NFL Network), is in fact impressive.
More than 90% of US households, or 112.5 million of them, have access to CBS, and with an average of 2.5 people per US household, that’s a reach of 281.25 million people. Twitter has only 62 million users in the US, since 80% of its base is outside the States. That’s a much smaller pool to reach.
A better comparison would be when Yahoo (parent company of Yahoo Finance) streamed an NFL game last season, but that, too, is not an apples-to-apples example. Yahoo’s game got 15.2 million viewers total, with an average of 2.36 million per minute. Those numbers best Twitter, but Yahoo has 1 billion users across its platforms, and it set the game to auto-play on its homepage. Twitter didn’t do any auto-play, or even market the stream aggressively to its users — in fact, some found the live stream hard to find. (You must watch within Twitter Moments or go to tnf.twitter.com.) In addition, Yahoo enjoyed an exclusive time slot—the game was played in London and did not show on any TV networks in the US, it could only be viewed on Yahoo; it didn’t have to compete with TV like Twitter does for its Thursday Night Football games.
And while Twitter’s numbers were smaller than Yahoo’s, it also paid far less: a reported $10 million for 10 games, compared to $20 million for a single game. The difference: Yahoo was able to sell all the ads that ran during its stream, while Twitter could only sell a small portion, about 15 ads, the same as the portion of local ads you see when watching an NFL game on national television.
Twitter had great success with selling those ads. The Wall Street Journal reports that big consumer-facing brands like Bank of America (BAC) and AB-InBev have bought packages worth between $1 million and $8 million each. (The advertisers likely paid close to $1 million per game.) The ads had a 98% completion rate, meaning viewers didn’t shut the stream off when an ad came on.
The most important thing: the stream worked. It didn’t break. It looked crystal clear, and the tweets from viewers were overwhelmingly positive. “The NFL was meant to stream on Twitter,” wrote GQ, while Inc called it a “hot start.”
Critics can debate whether streaming live sports even makes sense for Twitter, and what it does for its brand. Critics can gripe that Twitter isn’t growing its user base or its revenue fast enough. But any criticism of Twitter’s NFL streaming based on the viewership number isn’t fair.
Considered in context, the first stream was a success. The question now is whether the numbers will go up for the next nine games.