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Why the NFL made Twitter its first social draft pick

With a first-of-its-kind deal, the NFL will be sending out video of game highlights, near-instant replays, and analysis in promoted tweets -- giving Twitter a coveted asset rivals like Facebook won't have.

Anquan Boldin, wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, scores a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams during Thursday Night Football on September 26, 2013. Ahead of the game, fans could watch a pregame analysis video in a promoted tweet from the NFL.
Michael Thomas/Getty Images

The National Football League doesn't like to share -- at least when it comes to the content it licenses to television networks for billions of dollars each year. But for the first time ever, the organization has partnered with a social network to share, in its own terms, "some of the most valuable content in the entertainment business."

The social network in question is Twitter, and the arrangement is such that the NFL will program special video clips that will be delivered as Promoted Tweets through the organization's official Twitter handle. Those video clips will include near-instant replays from Thursday night games, Sunday post-game highlights, analysis, news, and fantasy football advice. Videos will be appended with pre-roll, 5- to 8-second advertisements from Verizon and another unnamed sponsor. Twitter and the NFL will share advertising, though the exact terms of the arrangement are unknown.


For Twitter, the deal means additional revenue in the lead up to its public offering. It also, perhaps equally important, gives the company a coveted asset that its competitors, Facebook in particular, won't have. The other social network has five times the active users and has been aggressively working its way into television and the real-time realm with hashtags, embedded posts, trending topics, and a public feed-sharing partnership with Mass Relevance.

So, why Twitter?

"Because of the nature of their platform, of being open publicly and real time ... and really seeing a synergist experience ... we thought this was a great way to start off with something deep with a social partner," Hans Schroeder, senior vice president of media strategy and development for the NFL, told CNET.

The NFL and Twitter have had an ongoing relationship for years, but conversations about an advertising partnership got serious over the summer, he said, and then moved swiftly. Verizon, the football organization's partner on NFL mobile and the exclusive distributor of live games to smartphones, was game to extend its arrangement with the NFL to run Twitter-sized spots.

"[Twitter] came with a much more robust appreciation for what their distribution could mean for content owners like ourselves," Schroeder said. "For us, one of the real attractive things about this partnership ... is the ability to take our content and use their ability to promote within their distribution network, and make sure a number much larger than 5 million people see this content and become more aware of the conversation around the NFL that happens today."

The NFL has about 5 million followers on Twitter, but the organization eyes the larger potential in the crossover between the 190 million NFL fans in the US and the 100 million people or so who use Twitter stateside, Schroeder said. The NFL really wants broad appeal, he added, and plans to expose its Twitter-specific content to casual and enthusiast sports fans alike.

The promoted tweets, which started Thursday morning with a pregame analysis video released ahead of the evening's football match up, will vary in appeal. Because of complicated licensing agreements, the NFL will only put out in-progress game highlights for the Thursday night games, which air on its own network. Still, Schroeder anticipates that the effort will boost television ratings and bring in new viewers.

"When we tweet out a highlight as it happens and somebody sees that in that Twitter feed, we definitely think it will lead to incremental viewership," he said. "We think ... even on Sundays, when we put out highlights after the game, that it will drive more people back to the television."

Schroeder also said he believes Twitter's real-time feed of tweets to be very complimentary to the football watching experience, which explains, in part, why the organization is investing so heavily in creating original content just for people on the network. The NFL plans to produce, in what Schroeder referred to a "robust and comprehensive content strategy," custom Twitter clips seven days a week. It will tap the "content factory" at the NFL Network and NFL Films to create programming for audiences on the 140-character platform.

Though Schroeder would never say it, the subtext of his comments suggests that Twitter is the only social network in town that the NFL can trust to impact viewership and increase usage of its branded applications. Rather, he'll give you a very diplomatic answer about wanting the NFL's content to "evolve with the broader marketplace."

His remarks leave the door open for the NFL to work with Facebook, but for now we can score this as a game-winning touchdown for Twitter.