Without much fanfare, beyond a few choice tweets, Twitter quietly launched its first live-streamed event today, broadcasting the proceedings at the Wimbledon tennis tournament on the company’s website and mobile apps. And after all the chest-thumping around the launch of Moments, the curated daily news section of its service, and the ability to add stickers to tweets, this could well end up being the most important new thing Twitter has unveiled in a while.
Later this year, Twitter will broadcast Thursday night American football games live after reaching a deal with the NFL. Today’s event, in partnership with ESPN (the actual broadcaster of the tournament) and Wimbledon, is likely to be a soft-launch dry run for the platform Twitter will use for the NFL in the fall.
Structurally, Twitter’s live-streaming site doesn’t seem wildly different from similar services already available on the web, such as YouTube or Twitch, where the video is accompanied by a steady stream of comments from watchers. But unlike those sites, the comments on Twitter are tweets, publicly available and easily searchable. (In the case of the Wimbledon broadcast, it seems that Twitter was pulling in any tweet that mentioned @wimbledon or #wimbledon.)
Over the years, Twitter has positioned itself as a companion to television, the always-on instant-reaction firehose through which anyone and everyone could respond to anything they’re watching on TV. It’s been the backbone of the “second screen” phenomenon, where we all have our phones out while watching TV just in case we think of something worth saying about what’s happening.
TV shows have put hashtags on advertisements, and even at the start of shows, to help curate the conversation around their programming. Twitter has sold ads related to hashtags, and has even pitched selling video ads to companies looking to capitalize on second-screen viewing.
Twitter could well cut out the cable box now and be the direct link between advertisers, content creators, and viewers.
Twitter’s growth is stagnant, and even worse—it’s losing a lot of money. It has a steady, monthly user base of about 320 million people worldwide, and if it can—like Facebook has—figure out how to make more money out of the same number of users, it will help right a sinking ship, and perhaps revive its stock price.
Live video that people want to watch and engage with may well be a way to do that. Perhaps Twitter can even rustle up a few users in the process, too.
Twitter is paying about $10 million for the 10 NFL games it plans to broadcast, according to Bloomberg. That’s nearly half what Yahoo paid to broadcast a single game in 2015 when it paid the NFL $17 million. “We did not take the highest bidder on the table,” Brian Rolapp, the executive vice president of media at the NFL, told Bloomberg. “The platform is built around live events already. We want to see how they use the unique platform, and syndicated tweets all over the Internet is going to be interesting.”
The social network is pricing ad packages between $2 million and $8 million for each game, according to Recode. If it manages to sell even the low end of those packages for each game, it would make a profit, but wouldn’t do much to stem falling revenue growth or the company’s losses—it lost nearly $80 million last quarter alone.
If the NFL games prove successful with audiences and advertisers, Twitter could use the platform to host any number of live events. Instead of watching The Voice or Chopped or The Bachelorette on TV with Twitter open on another screen to mock it, why not just combine them into one? Twitter wanted to be the companion to TV, and now it’s finally realizing it can just be TV.
Twitter isn’t the only service that can broadcast live on the web—there’s Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter’s own Periscope, Snapchat, and just about every cable company has or is launching their own streaming service. Facebook is pouring money into content producers creating things specifically for Facebook Live, and YouTube has an entire division dedicated to finding and nurturing new talent for its platform.
Will Twitter be able to succeed with so many other hefty competitors in a crowded field? It’s too early to tell, but whatever happens, we’ll certainly see people praising or complaining about it in real time, on Twitter.