The NFL is selling the rights to stream its "Thursday Night Football" games next season, and at least four big tech companies are interested.
All four companies also talked to the NFL last year about the same deal, which Twitter won with a $10 million bid for the right to stream 10 games. (CBS and NBC pay a lot more for the rights to broadcast the games on television.) It's possible others have also submitted proposals.
The league is likely to make a decision within the next month, and could provide some kind of update to league owners at the NFL's Annual Meeting in Phoenix next week.
Spokespeople for Amazon, Facebook and Twitter declined to comment, as did Alex Riethmiller, a spokesperson for the NFL. YouTube did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Just like TV networks, tech companies are interested in live sports right now. Facebook and Twitter are cutting deals for virtually any live sports they can get their hands on, and Amazon is also interested in live sports deals and has been buying movie rights, too.
Live sports rights are expensive and tough to come by, though; traditional TV rights for major sports leagues like the NFL, NBA and MLB are already locked up for years. That makes these Thursday night streams the highest-profile package on the market right now.
But while the NFL deal is high profile, it's tough to tell how valuable it actually is. Twitter didn't report a meaningful spike in user growth or revenue as a result of last year's games, for instance.
Twitter claims 3.5 million people watched each game, on average, but the average audience at any given time, which is how traditional TV ratings are calculated, was just a couple hundred thousand viewers per game. CBS averaged closer to 15 million viewers per "Thursday Night Football" game last season.
That smaller audience is one of the reasons these games sold for just $10 million last year, a fraction of what the NFL makes on TV rights. These streams are not exclusive; viewers can also watch the games on NBC or CBS, NFL Network and Verizon, which has mobile distribution rights. Plus, Twitter was only allowed to sell a small percentage of the game's overall ad inventory.
In other words, this is an interesting deal, but not a huge one, especially by NFL standards. Here's a closer look at each of the NFL's potential streaming partners.
The NFL knows what to expect from Twitter, which helps here. Twitter pushed its NFL deal very aggressively with the media and its users last fall and was able to sell all of the ad inventory the NFL offered up, according to multiple sources. The network also has a worldwide audience, which is appealing to the league. Twitter also offers a social element: A way to talk about the game with other fans while watching it on the same screen.
But there are downsides. While Twitter didn't require viewers to have an account to watch the streams last year, it has a significantly smaller audience than Facebook and YouTube. There's also a potential brand issue. In the 12 months since the NFL announced it was partnering with Twitter, the company has explored a sale, cut staff and lost a number of key executives. The NFL is incredibly brand-sensitive and may not want to associate with a company going through the kind of troubles Twitter is dealing with.
Facebook probably makes the most sense here. The company has all the same benefits of Twitter — a global audience, a social component, the ability to court advertisers — but on a much, much bigger scale. Plus, Facebook isn't dealing with the business drama that Twitter is.
But the NFL and Facebook clearly weren't willing to meet on deal terms a year ago, so something prevented the two from working together, and Facebook is just now starting to tinker with mid-stream video ads. That doesn't mean Facebook can't sell and deliver TV commercial-style video ads, just that it hasn't in the past.
Amazon was one of the companies that offered more money for these streams than Twitter did last year. But Twitter made a better pitch around distributing the games internationally than Amazon did, and there were also some concerns over Amazon's ability to sell the ad inventory, according to a source familiar with the pitch.
But Amazon's ads business is expanding, and the company created a new sports group to help facilitate deals like these. It's possible that Amazon would want these NFL streams offered as part of its Amazon Prime subscription package, though the NFL is hesitant to limit its distribution, which includes putting games behind a paywall. (Amazon has at least 66 million Prime members.) Last year, Amazon offered to show the games to anyone, not just Prime members, and it's likely that would be a stipulation this year if the NFL cut a deal.
YouTube has over a billion users, many of them young people, and has a large international audience. Google and the NFL are also already working together on a virtual reality video series.
But while YouTube has lots of video advertisers, the company is going through a bit of an advertiser crisis at the moment, with numerous big-name marketers pulling ad dollars out of fear their ads will run next to offensive content. It's certainly poor timing for YouTube, and the kind of brand association the NFL would like to avoid. What's also unclear is whether or not YouTube will try and put the livestreams behind its YouTube Red paywall. That probably wouldn't fly with the NFL.
—By Kurt Wagner, Re/code.net.
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