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Twitter is talking to the NBA, MLS and Turner to buy rights to more sports streams

Twitter is looking to ink more NFL-style streaming deals.

Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Twitter wants to stream more TV-like live video around major sporting events, so it’s approaching the folks who control those rights to cut a deal.

The company is in talks with the NBA, Major League Soccer and cable network Turner about acquiring digital streaming rights for content related to live sports and events, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.

That could include things like actual game footage similar to the deal Twitter struck with the NFL to stream some of its Thursday Night Football games later this fall. Or it could be fringe content, pre- or post-game material similar to the live interviews and analysis Twitter streamed around Wimbledon earlier this week. (It couldn’t stream live tournament matches because ESPN holds those rights.)

Twitter is talking to Turner because it already locked up sports rights from a number of sources, including the NBA, MLB and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Turner also has its own eSports league, called Eleague, and broadcasts professional video game competitions, which could make sense for a platform like Twitter.

Reps for Twitter, Turner and both sports leagues declined to comment.

The idea here is that Twitter wants to be the digital streaming arm for any and all live events, particularly around sports and entertainment. The fact that it’s talking to the largest players and rights holders in the industry is no surprise.

"We’re not just talking to the leagues, we’re also talking to the broadcast partners of the leagues and the cable network partners of the leagues," Twitter CFO Anthony Noto told Recode back in April. Now we know who some of those leagues and networks are.

Nabbing streaming rights to actual games and matches for these leagues might be tough, though. Twitter is missing a key component that makes distributing this content via traditional cable packages so profitable: Subscription fees.

At this point, Twitter is essentially limited to a single revenue source for whatever it streams: Advertising. Traditional rights holders like ESPN and Turner are used to making money from the carriage fees paid by the cable and satellite distributors.

In ESPN’s case, for example, it already offers digital streaming, but only to people who already pay for ESPN through their pay TV provider. That means a network like ESPN is probably less motivated to sell additional streaming rights to a service like Twitter since it’s free to anyone online — it subverts their subscription model.

It’s also the reason some folks, including NBA and NHL owner Ted Leonsis, believe that tech companies that have built-in subscription models like Amazon or Netflix might make more sense for these kinds of streaming deals since they already book subscription dollars the way a traditional cable company does. Amazon, for example, already sells its own little bundle of channels that includes Showtime and Starz.

"I’m more likely to work with Amazon," explained Leonsis, who is launching his own sports subscription network called Monumental Sports Network in the fall. "Amazon Prime, I look at as they’re in a subscription business. They look like a cable company."

The other challenge for Twitter will be convincing existing rights holders that handing over streaming rights can actually benefit their existing TV offers.

That might mean taking a similar approach to how Twitter handled Wimbledon, where it showed fringe footage that might lure users into a game or event without actually broadcasting live game footage.

For example, Twitter might have more luck acquiring streaming rights for pre-game footage and analysis for NBA games than streaming rights for the games themselves. Putting this content on Twitter could be a way to drum up excitement for the main event without encroaching on the territory of existing rights holders.

Of course, we assume Twitter wants both in-game and fringe content, and the reality is that they’ll likely get some kind of a mix. My conversations with smart people lead me to believe it will probably nab more fringe content than game content, but talks are still ongoing.

And whatever Twitter walks away with, expect it to be billed as an experiment on all sides. Remember that digital streaming in general still pales in comparison to TV broadcasting.

Twitter paid the NFL $10 million for the right to stream 10 Thursday Night Games this fall; NBC and CBS are paying a combined $450 million for the same Thursday Night Football TV rights for the entire 2016 season.

So while these deals may matter a lot to Twitter, which is looking to jumpstart user growth and get new people coming to its platform, they’re small potatoes in the grand scheme of digital sports rights.

Still, these transitions have to start somewhere, and if streaming sports and other events works well for Twitter, expect others like Facebook and Amazon and Apple to come calling. Live TV is still king. It’s just a matter of who gets to sit on the throne.

Facebook bots served up highlights during the NBA Finals

This article originally appeared on

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