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Twitter’s big bet on NFL streaming is about users, not money

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Twitter needs mainstream appeal, and the NFL has some to spare

Harry How/Getty Images

Twitter just celebrated its 10th birthday, a somber affair. The company's user growth has flatlined, and depending on how you count, might even be shrinking. Twitter has steadily grown its revenue base, but it's never managed a healthy profit. Over the last year it shed a number of high profile executives and swapped CEO Dick Costolo for its former chief executive Jack Dorsey.

And yet throughout it all Twitter has continued to play an integral role in the worlds of sports, politics, and entertainment. From Kanye West to Donald Trump, mountains of news are built off its 140-character messages. And when it comes to following the big game in real time, Twitter stands alone. "Watching a live event unfold is the fastest way to understand the power of Twitter," Dorsey told investors during the company's last earnings call. "Twitter is live: live commentary, live conversations, and live connections."

And now Twitter is make making its biggest bet on live programming ever: the company has purchased the rights to stream 10 games from the National Football League in a hotly contested bidding process which drew interest from Facebook, Amazon, and Verizon. Twitter has a long relationship with the NFL, and the partnership says a lot about how the struggling social network works. It lacks the intimacy and consistency that has allowed Facebook to collect over a billion users — but it's an excellent broadcast platform, and its premier advertising tools are optimized to target viewers during a live experience.

The NFL thinks Twitter is much larger than reported

As far back as 2013, Twitter has been focused on monetizing the second screen experience. I watch the Oscars, sure, but I'm really more interested in the Oscar jokes on Twitter. That's why Twitter acquired BlueFin Labs, a TV analytics firm. What's interesting about the NFL deal is that it takes Twitter beyond its traditional role as the chat room running alongside TV, and turns it into the actual broadcaster. "Twitter has always been considered a 'second screen' for what's happening in the world and we believe we can become the first screen for everything that's happening now," said Dorsey during the earnings call.

And Twitter might be a bigger media presence than its user numbers suggest — the company has argued for years that its investors don't appreciate its true size. Sure it has just over 300 million registered users, but hundreds of millions more often tune in to Twitter to follow breaking news. And when you count all the people who see Tweets repurposed on other websites, spotlighted on television, and even published in print, well, who's to say the company isn't bigger than Facebook?

So far Wall Street hasn't bought that argument, but it seems like the NFL is willing to play along. In the joint press release touting the deal, the NFL and Twitter talked about reaching an audience of 800 million users, more than double Twitter's last registered user count. Clearly the NFL believes lots of people will be willing to visit Twitter on the web, or even download the app, if it means getting free football in a way that is more convenient for them.

It's hard to see Twitter making a big profit off football

That massive influx of viewers is what Twitter is banking on as well. It reportedly paid $10 million a game, but isn't free to sell advertising as it pleases against that content. As my colleague Peter Kafka reports at Re/Code, "CBS and NBC have their own digital rights, and they will own most of the digital ad inventory in their games, people familiar with the deal say. So Twitter will be rebroadcasting the CBS and NBC feeds of the games, and will have the rights to sell a small portion of the ads associated with each game."

For Twitter, in other words, streaming the NFL is not about making lots of money. The deal is a Hail Mary pass to jumpstart user growth by leaning into the powerful live experience only Twitter provides during a game.

It wouldn't be the first time a big sporting event helped Twitter expand its reach: the World Cup boosted user growth, revenue, and the stock price. If it can get a healthy portion of the users who visit its website or download its app to stick around after getting their football fix, it might find a way to regain some momentum in the markets. That would give its prodigal CEO Jack Dorsey some breathing room as he tries to iron out big changes to product and staff.

Profitability? That can wait till next season.