NEW YORK -The National Football League has picked Twitter to stream its Thursday night games.
When the league negotiated its latest deal for the Thursday package, it decided to sell the streaming rights separately for an "over the top" broadcast. This past season, it partnered with Yahoo (YHOO) to stream a game from London that took place on a Sunday morning in the U.S.
Only the 10 Thursday night games on CBS (CBS) and NBC (CMCSA) will be streamed through Twitter (TWTR) under a one-year agreement, the NFL announced Tuesday. They will be free worldwide on all devices through the Twitter platform. Viewers will not need to be registered Twitter users.
The NFL Network-only Thursday games are not part of the deal.
The league wants to experiment with digital broadcasts to see how they might fit into future strategies. In the meantime, this also offers a new revenue source with digital companies eager to get involved in live sports.
Twitter is paying more than $10 million along with providing promotional opportunities as part of the deal, according to a person familiar with the agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the companies are not releasing the financial details.
CBS and NBC are paying $45 million per game for the Thursday night package.
So far, the audience for NFL streams has been significantly smaller than that for traditional TV. The Yahoo broadcast of the Bills-Jaguars game from London in October averaged a worldwide audience of about 2.4 million. A Jets-Dolphins matchup from London earlier that month, which started at the same time, averaged more than quadruple that in the U.S. alone with 9.9 million viewers on CBS.
The Bill-Jaguars game was available on TV only in the teams' home markets, so fans in the rest of the country who wanted to see it had to watch the stream. In contrast, the Thursday night broadcasts are nationally televised.
That London game took place at a time of day when American fans might be less likely to find themselves in front of a TV. For prime time, that isn't as much of an issue.
Consider the "Monday Night Football" finale this past season. The game between Denver and Cincinnati averaged 15.8 million viewers on TV and just 154,000 on the WatchESPN streaming service. Only ESPN (DIS) subscribers are able to access those streams, though, while the Thursday night Twitter broadcasts will be available free to any user.
The NFL launched "Thursday Night Football" on NFL Network in 2006 with eight games, which grew to 13 by 2012. In 2014, the league partnered with CBS for a 16-game slate -- half simulcast on CBS and NFL Network and half solely on NFL Network, with CBS producing all the games with its top announcing team. CBS received the rights again for 2015.
In 2016 and '17, CBS and NBC will each air five games, which will be simulcast on NFL Network. Another eight will be exclusively on NFL Network.