NFL's Thursday Night Football Twitter deal marks social media sports rush

For the first time, fans of Thursday Night Football can turn to Twitter to livestream the game wherever they are. The NFL-Twitter deal marks one of many high-profile sports league content distribution contracts with social media networks, a new strategy to reach younger, digital-minded viewers.

"As your audience diversifies, as their viewing habits diversify, your distribution models have to follow," said Elizabeth Lindsey, Wasserman's managing partner of brands and properties. "You went from prime time broadcast to cable. You went from online viewing to mobile apps. Now we're getting to social."

Wasserman, a sports marketing and talent management agency that has brokered advertising deals for all the major sports leagues in the U.S., said there's a fragmentation in the media landscape as more people lean on smartphone and mobile technology. It's forcing the leagues to use different ways to reach younger fans who may have cut the cord, both to ensure the popularity and advertiser desires to target millennials.

"We as a society have increased the amount of time we spend every day consuming media," said Zack Sugarman, vice president of digital for Wasserman. "While there is a dip in broadcast watching, we're more than making up for it in streaming or social consumption. [Livestreaming] isn't cannibalizing, it's additive."

Sports remains one of the top events that people will still tune into live. But, according to a December 2015 Pew Research Center report, 15 percent of Americans have ended their cable subscription. Another 9 percent never had a cable or satellite subscription to begin with. Young adults made up the majority of that group.

"Live was the last bastion of TV," said Jason Stein, CEO of Wasserman's social media firm Laundry Service. "It looks like the new video platforms and the popular social apps are going right for that because there's $200 billion of ad spend put into TV. Globally, that's as massive of as shift you're going to see in your lifetime when it all goes to digital video."

Wasserman's Lindsey said Thursday Night Football in particular has the largest millennial audience out of the weekly NFL games, with 70 percent of viewers in the 18-to-34 year-old range. While broadcast can help advertisers reach a broad audience, social media companies' ability to get more insightful data on its users can advertisers with a better understanding of when to run their ads, she said.

"TV can give you ratings and the estimated number of people," Wasserman's Sugarman said. "With social platforms and [over-the-top], you are getting so much more info on the fan consumer than you can get internally and for brand partners looking to come in. They have the tracking ability to know what everyone's watching, when they are watching, and what they like and what they don't. The data insights is a huge part of why this trend is taking off, and you'll see more of it."

In addition to the Twtter partnership, The NFL acquired its own Snapchat Discover channel and more Snapchat Live Stories as part of a two-year deal announced in August. Earlier, the NFL was Facebook's first test partner for post-roll, or after the video, ads.

In July, the NBA streamed nine pre-Olympics USA basketball games on Facebook, marking the NBA's first move into livestreaming. The league will also be debuting two livestreamed shows, but not actual games, on Twitter this fall.

The MLB has long been on Snapchat, including a behind-the-scenes Spring Training initiative in March as well as MLB Wednesdays, a weekly live story.

There are some subtleties between the social media platforms. Facebook is focused on shortform content, additional content, and original live video that exclusive to its platform, Laundry Service's Stein said. It is a more "robust" platform in size and scale to its competitors, and ideal for when a marketer might want to be seen as an authority on a subject, Wasserman's Sugarman added.

However, Twitter is better at conversations of the moment, perfect for pairing with a livestreamed event, Sugarman said. Snapchat, on the other hand, is more ephemeral in nature, perfect for behind-the-scenes, lighthearted content or crowdsourced material from fans, he said.

But Jill Sherman, senior vice president of social strategy for digital agency DigitasLBi, warned that using social media for marketing is more than going to the mass audience and knowing how to use the platform correctly. It's also about understanding if the league is appropriate for the advertiser, she said. In addition, the brand should have the budget to promote their advertising across all of digital media since there is so many ads online and on mobile.

"Is there a better way to spend your money elsewhere in year, realizing where there is scale there is noise?" she said. "We really want to make sure their brand is exactly right for the opportunity, and they have the budget to promote around the opportunity. It's not simply getting the sponsorship opportunity, but it's about being able to promote around it to cut through the noise. Otherwise, you're being annoying. Period."

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Elizabeth Lindsey's last name.