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Twitter's Super Bowl Is Tonight

By Adam Levy – Sep 15, 2016 at 8:25AM

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Twitter's first NFL live-stream is a big test.

Image Source: Getty Images

A week 2 NFL game is rarely considered a make-or-break matchup. But Twitter (TWTR 2.57%) will be under a lot of scrutiny as it streams its first of 10 Thursday Night Football games tonight when the New York Jets visit the Buffalo Bills.

Twitter made several deals this summer to acquire the streaming rights to several live sports broadcasts including weekly games from the MLB and NHL and highlights from the NBA. In June, I took a look at how live-streaming events could be an entirely new business model for Twitter. Whether or not that's true could hinge on tonight's live-stream.

Twitter needs a hit

Twitter is betting big on video advertising, and management actually points to the format as a reason its ad revenue growth has declined so sharply recently. Video ads are now the biggest revenue generator for the company, but the growth in video ads has come largely at the expense of its legacy promoted tweets format.

That's in contrast to competitors like Facebook (META -0.54%), which has seen video ads provide incremental revenue growth because marketers are willing to pay more for the format. During Facebook's first-quarter earnings call, however, COO Sheryl Sandberg noted that "video ads take the place of another ad in News Feed, so not all of the revenue [is] incremental."

Grabbing a larger share of ad budgets is the key to Twitter's ad revenue growth going forward, according to CFO Anthony Noto, and to drive that, Twitter needs an increase in engagement, and Thursday Night Football is its best chance to accomplish that.

High expectations

Both Twitter and a few advertisers have high expectations for its live-streams. The Wall Street Journal reports that ad packages for all 10 games range from $1 million to $8 million, with $5 million giving the advertiser two commercials per game (which works out to $250,000 per ad) plus sponsorship of dozens of video clips. For reference, NBC and CBS are reportedly charging between $550,000 and $590,000 per 30-second spot during the games.

Thursday Night Football averaged about 13 million viewers when broadcast on CBS and NFL Network last year, so Twitter will need about 6 million viewers to make it an equivalent investment for brands. That might not sound like a lot compared to its 313 million monthly active users, but considering the games will also be broadcast on TV in the United States, it represents a considerable audience.

Twitter believes it can provide more value to advertisers than TV by enabling marketers to use targeting data. However, that value may be offset by the screen size on which most people would watch the game through Twitter -- a smartphone. However, Twitter made deals with Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon to bring its live-streams to the Apple TV, Xbox, and Fire TV devices to mitigate that factor.

Some advertisers don't think it's worth the price. Brandon Rhoten, head of media and digital advertising at Wendy's, told The Wall Street Journal he'd rather wait for viewership ratings and engagement data before he invests in Twitter's live-streaming ads. If Twitter can't deliver the audience or return on investment, the future of its live-streaming business may be in jeopardy.

What investors can expect

Twitter has indicated that it's already seen a lot of success selling its ad packages for Thursday Night Football. With roughly 15 ad spots per game, Twitter stands to generate $35 million to $40 million in ad revenue over the 10 games based on the $5 million ad package reported by The Wall Street Journal. It only paid $10 million for the streaming rights, so it appears Twitter will generate a good profit on the investment.

But that's just what's going to show up on Twitter's next couple of earnings reports. Analysts and investors should be paying more attention to what kind of comments management has about its live-streaming audience. What's ad engagement like and how many people are tuning in? That's going to have a larger impact on Twitter than a few months of added revenue from 10 NFL games.

Adam Levy owns shares of AMZN and AAPL. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends AMZN, AAPL, FB, and TWTR. The Motley Fool owns shares of MSFT and has the following options: long January 2018 $90 calls on AAPL and short January 2018 $95 calls on AAPL. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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