Last Monday night, it's estimated that over 81 million viewers tuned in for the first presidential debate of 2016, which would be a record number for any debate in U.S. history. A huge part of the reason for that is the spectacle put on during this election year between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but a significant boost came from the fact that you didn't have to be at home, or even near a television, in order to watch. You may have watched Trump vs Clinton in the classic analog fashion, but you may have also seen it through Twitter, on your Chromebook, while at Starbucks. Or through Facebook, on your iPhone, while in your bio class.
It doesn't cost you any additional fees to watch, you can be anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, and dozens of outlets are daring you not to tune in given these options. It's in thanks to this accessibility that tens of millions were able to watch the debates, and there's only one thing in America that will do better in the ratings this year: Football.
As usual, when it comes to self-marketing, the NFL is already way ahead of the curve.
This season, the league began broadcasting some Thursday Night Football games through Twitter and the first two have already proven that the format is a worthwhile success. As Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said earlier this year, "We think this is a great opportunity for our advertisers and also people that are interested in the NFL and football."
We began to see those opportunities in 2015 when Yahoo! Sports broadcasted a game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Buffalo Bills that reached 15.2 million viewers and had 33.6 million video streams. I repeat: 15.2 million unique viewers – about the same number who watch Empire each week – tuned in for a game between the Jags and Bills.
If you've logged into Twitter during Thursday Night Football this season, you may have noticed the link at the top of your feed that allows you to watch the game for free. Yes, you will still be able to watch the game on the NFL Network, and sometimes CBS or NBC, but this is just another example of viewers being dared not to watch given that it costs you nothing except signing up for Twitter and maybe being followed by some unwanted bots.
We've seen similar advancements lately in how the NFL – the most savvy of any American sport in terms of how to broadcast, advertise, and promote their league – uses social media and the Internet to their advantage, This year, they began putting full replays of classic games on YouTube, and their behind-the-scenes programming of Hard Knocks on HBO and the expanded "All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals" on Amazon Prime, while mostly coming off as self-serving puff pieces, is still miles ahead of anything that any other league has done to make itself available to the media-starving public.
And the public is definitely hungry for more content, especially when it comes to their sports.
Pretty much everyone only watches sports while they’re happening: in an era of the DVR, Netflix, and stealing cable via Russian streams after clicking through a billion annoying pop-up ads, 95% of total sports viewing in 2015 happened live. That fact alone should make sports the most valuable type of entertainment, so why not make sports extremely available to us?
Of course, this also hasn’t been a bad deal for Twitter. The company hit a new low of $14 per share last June and began bleeding users in the final quarter of 2015. But suddenly the stock is rising again as rumors persist that Google, Disney, Verizon, and others are lining up for a bidding war to acquire the social media company, and their ability to stream live video, including NFL games, is surely no small part of that.
Over 119 million people watched the Super Bowl this year – a dominating figure over the most-watched political debate of all-time – and three of the top eight shows in terms of ratings are primetime football programming. Consider that Sunday Night Football averaged 22 million viewers per week last season, which is more than the 2016 NBA Finals (20.2 million), which was the most-watched Finals in 18 years. Or that the World Series draws in about the same number of viewers as an episode of Blue Bloods, a show that I'm pretty sure nobody under 65 has literally ever seen.
It may take years to get through all the red tape of TV and cable contracts, but the future of sports-watching is undeniable. I have watched baseball for free through a sports app, but those games are quite limited, especially given that the MLB has 2,430 of them every regular season. You can watch ESPN and ESPN2 through Sling TV, but the $20 per month fee is still pretty steep. Even the NFL could make a lot of changes over the coming years, including dropping the price of Sunday Ticket ($200 for four months) and putting a lot more games on Twitter or Yahoo! or Venmo for all I care, for free.
Whether it's through Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, the best bet for any league might be to start giving the streams away for free and selling the ads knowing that sports might be the last vestige for viable commercials. Is the future of something like UFC programming really going to be paying a large fee to watch an event at a bar or having it sent directly to your phone for free while you're at your parents house and just being forced to watch some ads for Monster energy drinks?
Wouldn't a lot more people tune into the NBA Finals if they could bypass having to send $80 to Comcast and instead could simply sign up for Snapchat and then cast the feed to their TVs?
This doesn't have to be the future of sports-watching. As we've already seen, this can be the right now.