Gridiron, Premier League and European Rugby: NFL shows how Twitter enhances game time and connects fans to the action

Social networks are expanding the audiences for top sports competitions but there are significant differences in how individual sports and advertisers are exploiting opportunities to engage with fans on game day. Newton Insight's sports blog continues with a look at the current state of play.

I’m old enough to remember when Saturday afternoon was the centre of the sporting week. 90% of what I cared about happened then, which made following it pretty simple.

You either went to the game, watched on television or followed on the radio. If it wasn’t being broadcast, you read about it the next day in print.


But just as 21st century working life rarely slots into the traditional nine to five slot anymore, neither does our sports consumption sit in the comfortable old mould of Saturday afternoons.

Like many fans unable to find the spare time to sit in front of a television screen for games scattered liberally across the working week, I find myself increasingly turning to Twitter to be kept updated on live match action.

Different sports, different strokes

Since writing my last piece on the NFL and Twitter, I’ve become increasingly interested in the live match Twitter experience across different sports. Much has been made recently of Twitter’s struggles to stay relevant and grow. Sport is an area I still feel offers huge potential for Twitter to expand and for brands, sponsors and broadcasters to increase their engagement and reach with fans.

With that in mind Newton Insight decided to take a look at in-game tweeting from three major sporting matches in three different sports over the same weekend. We compared match coverage for a Premier League football match, a European Cup rugby game an NFL American football game to see how they measure up.

Football: Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League

The Premier League’s official account (@premierleague) posted 13 tweets during this clash between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, two of which were retweets from the clubs involved. While all their tweets came with action photos from the game, no match footage was posted.

Interestingly, the Premier League runs a live blog of the game (also without videos), but only linked to it in before the game and twice during the game itself (the first of which was at half-time). This seems to be a wasted chance to direct fans to their website and generate traffic.

The @SpursOfficial account looks quite slick, and many of the 20 posts during the game are illustrated either with a match photo or animated gif (not of the match action, but of a player  photo or animated text). Game footage rights prevents match action being broadcast by clubs.

@ManCity, with 29 posts, had an even more visual timeline than Spurs – with plenty of personalised images and graphics. And while like their rivals they don’t have the right to show match action, they do seem to involve fans a little more with a couple of retweets on their timeline. They even engaged with @SpursOfficial by quoting one of their goal tweets.

Rugby Saracens v Toulon in the Champions Cup

Until fairly recently, your only hope of getting match footage on social media for many rugby matches was through fan tweets – often blurry footage from someone pointing a smartphone at a poorly lit television screen. Meaning you had to spend a lot of time actively seeking out non-official accounts to follow. which is not a good thing for sponsors, broadcasters and teams. Thankfully, things have gotten a lot better.

The official tournament account (@ChampionsCup) had plenty of pre game tweets on the Saracens’ match, but during the game a paltry four tweets went out, one of which was a retweet. It did however link to a live match stats page on its own website, for fans to follow the game via.

The official broadcasters, @btsportrugby, however, make up for the minimum effort from the organisers. Unlike their football counterparts, this account has plenty of match action in video form. And it isn’t just the scores either, it knows when to tweet a juicy bit of action that’s likely to get a reaction and some shares.

While there were only six tweets during the game, five of these contained match video. And, to be fair, the match was a low scoring affair, finishing 10-3. So it’s likely there would have been far more had the game been higher scoring.

On the official team accounts, @saracens posted 79 tweets during the game, effectively choosing to run minute by minute updates. Whilst they don’t have rights for live video, they make up for it by giving fans an update almost every minute, and a constant stream of photos to go with it. Far more detailed than their football counterparts.

Toulon were as disappointing on Twitter as they were on the playing field with just seven tweets during the game. Bar one tweet, none were illustrated or came with graphics. It was like Twitter 2010.

Surprisingly, despite operating on a far smaller budget and playing to a far smaller audience, the overall Twitter experience for rugby came out better that football one on this occasion.

American Football: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons in the NFL

The NFL’s official account @NFL is quite simply, brilliant. It’s perhaps not surprising. The organisation’s revenue for 2016 is expected to surpass $13 billion. The Premier League’s revenue will probably be around a third of that and rugby’s European Cup looks like a pub tournament in comparison. @NFL’s 52 match tweets were a great blend of match action, match images, humorous tweets, factual tweets, celebrity pics (from the game), emojis, retweets and game action gifs.

Interestingly, match video (which appears almost instantly after a score) usually has a short video before it for a sponsor. It’s about five seconds of ad only during game (although this seems to rise to about 15 seconds a few days after the game), so there’s no real frustration and fans know exactly what they are getting. Sponsors get some airtime and fans get some almost real-time action. A fair trade off which benefits sponsors, teams and fans (and should please executives at Twitter who want to make the platform more attractive).

Fox Sports (@FOXSports) was one of the main game broadcasters and, with footage seemingly not being allowed on Twitter during the game, they showed little initiative. A few cheesy meme gifs and one picture were about all they offered up in just four game tweets. Finally, the official team accounts(@Packers and @AtlantaFalcons) managed 93 tweets between them. They were far more wide ranging and engaging than the football or rugby equivalents and also included key match video highlights.

Newton Insight research proves it’s not just about numbers

So how did these different approaches play out off the field? The two NFL teams demonstrated how good content generates engagement with fans and creates opportunities for advertisers to go beyond the traditional television audience. Consider that the total number of viewing opportunities created by the Atlanta Falcon’s Twitter account and the Twitter activities of its fans on game day was 1.3 billion.

It’s easy enough to say that the NFL has more power than most other sports and can generate audience figures at will, but the official Twitter account of Spurs in the English Premiership has MORE followers than the Falcons (1.7M for Spurs to 1.2M for the Falcons). Despite the smaller follower count, Falcons’ fans generated ten times more activity than Spurs’ fans on game day. Newton Insight tracked all fan activity over the past weekend and by 6pm local time on Sunday, Falcons’ fan activity was peaking at over 3,000 tweets per minute.

It is also worth pointing out that our research found a higher proportion of the twitter activity by Falcons fans was self-generated rather than a simple RT. So more participation and more contribution.

There are more breaks in play in the NFL, so fans can hit their smartphones whilst the game resets and adverts play on television. But that doesn’t account for the size of the disparity, nor does it explain the readiness of Falcons fans to produce their own messages rather than rely on RTs.

There’s little doubt the key difference is content-driven. As a fan, I spend more time engaging with the NFL on Twitter than any other sport due to the superior experience I enjoy compared to other sports. Most importantly, I consistently get near instant live game video. While complicated broadcasting rights may hold that up in football and rugby, the legal niceties are of little concern to fans. They want and will respond to quality content.

It’s in the interest of all bodies for live footage to become standard, especially as non-official accounts will only seek to fulfil that need anyway. The more you give to an audience, the more you get back in return. For brands, and most importantly for Twitter itself, that’s an opportunity they have to seize.

Follow James Stafford on Twitter at @jpstafford

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