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Twitter's NFL live stream was a huge success

Twitter made history on Thursday night when it live-streamed an NFL game to most of the world for free. It was a bold move for Twitter, and leading up to the event, some critics said that showing full NFL games doesn’t make much sense for a company whose raison d’etre is 140-character messages.

But this was a big night for Twitter. The official numbers aren’t out yet, but the jury is in—and the jury liked it.

The first stream was, by most accounts, a huge success. CNET called the stream “a touchdown.” USA Today wrote that Twitter got “rave reviews.” Forbes told sports fans to, “Commence cable cutting.”

“It was a marquee moment for sure,” says Andrew Miller, CEO of FootballNation, a football content site that recently acquired the user base of mobile sports video app Fancred. “It will be one of those ‘I remember where I was when’ moments. Others have live-streaming and social but the intersection of live streaming and user social interaction and community for sports arrived last night.”

A moment from Twitter's live stream of Jets vs Bills

You may recall that Yahoo (parent company of Yahoo Finance) became the first technology platform to live-stream an NFL game when it ran a Sunday morning NFL game (played in London) on September 25 of last year. But Twitter’s situation is very different.

Yahoo reportedly paid $20 million for just that one game, but it had the ability to sell all the advertisements that ran during its stream. Twitter reportedly spent less than $15 million for 10 Thursday Night Football games. But unlike Yahoo, the vast majority of the ads that run during Twitter’s streams are the same ads that run on the national television broadcast—so Twitter can’t make any money from the ads. As part of the deal, Twitter does get to sell a small portion of ads on its own—the same amount of local ads in your market that you see when you watch a national game on television.

No matter. The NFL games are surely a big score for Twitter’s brand, and help to position it as what it clearly wants to be: the go-to “second screen” for people watching or following a sports event.

Twitter has steep competition in that goal. Its rival Snapchat debuted this season an official NFL Discover channel, which includes original content (stories, behind-the-scenes footage, highlights) created by NFL Network for Snapchat. Since those aren’t full games, the two can certainly coexist, but few people are going to use both at once, and there are studies that shows young people may prefer bite-sized quick clips to watching a full game. And Facebook debuted a Sports Stadium section this year for fans to post in real-time as they watch games.

Twitter’s live stream looked crystal clear. That’s no surprise: Bam Tech, the video arm of Major League Baseball, provided the back-end streaming technology. Bam Tech has done the same for platforms like HBO Now, WWE and PGA Tour, and it’s the reason Disney recently took a 33% stake in Bam Tech for $1 billion.

The viewing experience—with the same commentary you’d hear if you were watching on CBS, and usually the same ads—was nearly the same as if you were watching on television. And users were able to watch on a phone, a tablet, a desktop computer, or through a connected TV on AppleTV, Amazon Fire, or Xbox One using a new Twitter app.

In a discussion of Twitter’s NFL streaming on our Yahoo Finance Midday Movers live show this week, tech writer David Pogue expressed skepticism over Twitter doing this in the first place. “None of that [streaming NFL games] has anything to do with Twitter,” Pogue said. “You can’t just start out as a messaging thing and then say, ‘We’re a sports network… Now we’re going to have car dealerships.'” It’s a criticism others have made as well. Twitter began as a messaging service; is it straying too far afield?

The answer is no, if Twitter wants to grow into something beyond a news tool for media. It aims to become the default social platform for sports fans. And showing full NFL games is one great start in that effort.

In its summation of the stream, the New York Times focused on the fact that the live stream was delayed a few seconds behind the television broadcast, which could be a problem if you saw “spoiler” tweets about the game from people watching on television. But it’s a minimal criticism, because anyone watching the game on Twitter was likely staying on the Twitter stream, and had it enlarged to full-screen (which hides the live tweets). What matters is: it didn’t break.

The stream displayed tweets about the game in real time, and most of the tweets were rave reviews. Twitter has not yet shared the viewership numbers, but Yahoo’s game last season garnered 15.2 million viewers. Expect Twitter’s buzz to build over the course of the season and the course of its 10 Thursday Night Football games. And you might even see Twitter’s stock, a weak performer for the last year, get a boost.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. 

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