National Lacrosse League Is Live-Streaming Games on Twitter

“We felt like, being a niche sport, we had a real opportunity to be a digital-first league,” says National Lacrosse League Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz. “We focused on becoming a modern sports league in that regard, and we’re very committed to a digital-first strategy.”

This is an exciting time for the NLL. It debuted a subscription OTT service, NLLTV, in early December. And now, it’s making another big move in online streaming, partnering with Twitter to live-stream one game per week for the duration of this season and next season. As the NFL learned when it live-streamed with Twitter during its 2016-17 season, working with this messaging network is a great way to get fans talking.

So far, the NLL’s digital efforts have paid off beyond expectations. Before launching NLLTV, Sakiewicz predicted that the service would get a modest 4,000 or 5,000 subscribers. So far, it has attracted 20,000. He expects that, in a year to 18 months, it will grow to 100,000 subscribers.

The Twitter deal is a way to test viewer interest and see if the NLL can appeal to even more fans. The odds look good: in February, Twitter live-streamed a college lacrosse game between the Virginia Cavaliers and Loyola Maryland Greyhounds, drawing 680,000 viewers. Sakiewicz calls that “really compelling evidence of lacrosse’s popularity,” adding that he would be ecstatic if the NLL got anywhere close to that number.

“We decided to move in the direction of Twitter because of their broad distribution platform,” he says. “They have over 280 million worldwide accounts. In North America, I think it’s, like, 62 million. Our broadcast strategy has to be about distribution and maximizing the distribution as far and as wide as we can.”

The NLL works with Sportsrocket to create NLLTV. Responsible for the Twitter stream as well, Sportsrocket is creating fully produced 1080p feeds using four to six cameras per arena, adding live commentary and on-screen graphics. The NLL’s hand-selected Twitter game roster demonstrates what Sakiewicz calls “the biggest, most compelling games of the weekend.” Both the NLL and Twitter will sell ads for the live-streamed games.

Twitter’s reach was a big part of the appeal, but so was the built-in social-media element. Viewers tuning into a live sports stream on Twitter can view comments from other fans and join in the discussion. Lacrosse appeals to a younger demographic than other sports do, so the online social element is a great fit.

“That’s the really exciting part because, from a fan engagement standpoint, it really is very different than any kind of viewing experience,” Sakiewicz explains. “That social interaction while a game is in progress is unique, and I believe that the future of live sports broadcasting is going to depend on the ability of properties to engage with the fans.”

Not only does streaming have a tremendous reach, he points out, but producing for online is far less expensive than for broadcast. He calls it an efficient way for niche sports to get wide distribution.

As if the Twitter deal weren’t enough, in mid March, the NLL announced a deal with Xumo, a company that makes OTT channel interfaces for connected TVs, to include the NLLTV app in its lineup. That gives the service a presence on sets from Samsung, Panasonic, Magnavox, Philips, and Vizio, as well as in Xumo’s iOS and Android apps. Viewers can buy subscriptions through the app or enjoy free recorded games or highlights. They can also watch the free pre-/post-weekend wrap-up shows that NLLTV creates and use DVR-like controls to pause and forward through games.

If this all seems like a lot of effort, that’s the point. Sakiewicz is jumping into online distribution while the area is growing, making rapid deals and using his league’s small size to his advantage. The NLL is even experimenting with putting cameras on players’ helmets to create unique perspectives. Without restrictions from governing bodies, the league is free to innovate and see how the fans respond.

“It’s pretty exciting for me as the commissioner because we get to experiment with technology in our league quickly,” Sakiewicz says. “And we think we’re able to be nimble with that, more so than maybe in some of the other leagues.”

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