It’s Thursday night. The New York Giants are facing off against the New England Patriots. You hate the Patriots (obviously), so you’re excited for a good game. (Sorry Pats fans!) You sit down on the couch, beer in hand, but instead of searching for a remote, you grab your laptop. You sign onto Facebook…
It’s Thursday night. The New York Giants are facing off against the New England Patriots. You hate the Patriots (obviously), so you’re excited for a good game. (Sorry Pats fans!) You sit down on the couch, beer in hand, but instead of searching for a remote, you grab your laptop. You sign onto Facebook. At the top of your News Feed, you see the game is about to begin. Your friends are all there with you, cheering or talking smack, as are the fellow football fanatics in your family. Gronk has shared a photo from the locker room ahead of the game. Odell Beckham Jr. just shared a GIF.
It’s football in America on Facebook—live. And it’s not a reality just yet. But that could well change starting next year. Along with other tech giants, Facebook has said it’s currently interested in buying the streaming rights to Thursday Night Football in its first public bid for the rights to a live event.
Dan Rose, Facebook’s vice president of partnerships, told Variety this week that the company is “willing to pay for live video content” and confirmed that Facebook is in talks with the NFL about buying the rights to stream football games live. He also told Variety that the company has contacted Hollywood agents “to bring actors, athletes, music artists and others into its live-streaming fold.” (Facebook did not return WIRED’s request for comment.)
For Facebook, streaming a live football game—and paying for the right to do so—would be an enormous shift for the company. Facebook has long served as a platform where people, publishers, and brands share comments, photos, and videos while Facebook serves up the ads around this user-generated content. Buying the rights to Thursday Night Football or paying celebrities to stream live video would turn Facebook into a content provider as well as a platform—even if we don’t know exactly what that might look like in our News Feeds just yet.
“They’ve built their entire business model on user-generated content,” says Tim Mulligan, an online video research analyst at MIdiA Research. “This would be the first time they’ve taken a traditional media content buying approach. … It’s basically the first kind of glimpse of what the future of TV might look like.”
Whether Facebook wins the rights to Thursday Night Football or not, the company is already actively experimenting with live video. And live sports—the last bastion of broadcast TV—may very well be the grandest of grand experiments. If Facebook does start streaming football, that won’t only be a big change for televised sports. It would mean a big change for the role of Facebook itself as a player in defining the future of TV.
A Scarce Commodity
Facebook has lots of good reasons to be interested in live TV, especially live sports. Live sports remain one of the last strongholds of traditional television, both broadcast and cable. Live sporting events are, after all, one of the few occasions on which a whole lot of people still gather in front of a TV at the same time. And when those viewers are looking at their TVs, they’re not looking at Facebook.
“It’s the bedrock of the US paid TV industry,” Mulligan says of live sports. “In the digital economy, the only thing that’s still a scarce commodity is live.” And, if it’s live, you have to be there, engaged with it, when it happens.
That said, Facebook has also become one of the dominant apps on viewers’ “second screens” while they’re watching sports. We’re already on Facebook (and other social media) talking with our friends and families during the game. That means Facebook could start inching toward capturing even more of that attention via live shots from the sidelines or in the locker room during half-time—or ultimately, in theory, the game itself.
“These are mass participation events, and that’s kind of unique. Everyone is experiencing the same thing together,” says Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner, who focuses on social media companies. “Facebook has had this mantra for many years about connecting people together socially. These live events are somewhat unique in that regard—especially with the technology and the Internet, it can make them even bigger events.”
Facebook as it’s currently designed, however, doesn’t quite scream “TV.” The company recently announced that it will begin prioritizing live video broadcasts by your friends, bringing them higher in your News Feed when the video is live. And the company did launch its “Sports Stadium” feature earlier this year—a dedicated place on Facebook to talk about sports. But the Sports Stadium is more like a news-source-meets-watercooler meant for chatting, not streaming. A bigger problem, says Forrester Research’s Jim Nail, is where we use Facebook. “Nobody is going to watch an entire football game on Facebook,” Nail says. “If you have to, you’ll watch it on a little screen. … But for sports, people want the big screen experience.”
In other words, Facebook won’t really be ready to be TV until we’re actually using it on our TVs.
An Experiment for Everyone
Still, the NFL may see a real benefit to working with Facebook. The league has long been keen on expanding its international reach (and reaching, well, anyone who isn’t already paying to watch sports on TV). Whoever has the streaming rights will be able to reach new audiences online that the NFL might not be able to reach any other way, says Adam Jones, the sports advisory services director for Pricewaterhouse Coopers. “The leagues continue to signal that direct-to-consumer over-the-top experiences”—that is, streaming online—”are great opportunities to expand the international audiences.”
That’s great for the NFL. But to start, the opportunity will be limited for Facebook. If it does win the rights to Thursday Night Football, those will still only include the digital streaming rights for the web—it won’t be able to stream the game on mobile phones—where Facebook generates the vast majority of its ad revenue. Moreover, Facebook wouldn’t have exclusive rights to the games. NBC and CBS are already splitting the rights to broadcast the Thursday night games along with the NFL’s own NFL Network.
Nonetheless, for Facebook to hint that it may be interested in paying to stream football or other live video content is a way of sending a signal. It’s telling the world that its future isn’t just the News Feed. For Facebook, the future may very well be something like full-fledged TV. Instead of paying for DirecTV, imagine getting some kind of cable-like package, or even à la carte choices, through a Facebook video player. “I think this is really typical of Facebook,” Blau says. “They love to experiment, and they’ll coalesce around some very interesting solutions.”
And if any company can pull off such an ambitious (and expensive) experiment, it’s probably Facebook. As it looks into buying the live rights to pro football, it’s also looking at paying celebrities you’d be willing to watch stream live on the platform.
“People will carve out live time to watch the Super Bowl, to watch the Oscars, but people have shown they do not carve out live time for linear TV anymore,” Nail says. “The way people live their lives right now there’s no more ‘must-see [live] TV.’ If Facebook thinks there’s going to be ‘must-see Facebook Live,’ I think they’re bucking the consumer viewing trend of the last 10 years.”
For now, TV remains fragmented, and the rights are a mess. That’s most true for sports, in particular, which is dominated by savvy leagues willing to divvy up rights to make the most money. But viewers also have power. If Facebook is where they’re spending their time, that may eventually be where the things they want to watch will have to be too.
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