Yahoo was quick to beat its chest over the performance of its live streamed NFL game this Sunday, but the numbers suggest it wasn’t as impressive Yahoo would like us to believe.

Here’s a breakdown of how the game did for Yahoo:

The audience numbers 
According to Yahoo and the NFL, more than 15.2 million unique viewers tuned in to watch the Buffalo Bills take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on Sunday. The game, which started at 9:30 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast, pulled in plenty of impressive-looking viewership stats, including people tuning in from more than 185 countries and in total watching more than 460 million minutes of low-profile football.

The catch: When you measure Yahoo’s live streaming audience in the way TV is measured, the numbers don’t look quite so rosy. The live stream actually averaged less than 2.4 million viewers per minute. To compare, a normal afternoon or evening NFL game can do anywhere from 10 to 20 million viewers. Even an earlier 9:30 a.m. London game this season, which was broadcast by CBS, averaged 9.9 million viewers.

What’s more, Yahoo put the live stream on autoplay on its homepage, Tumblr and other properties. According to Sports Business Journal, Yahoo counted a stream after three seconds — just like Facebook does — which is an easy way to goose viewership numbers. That said, there is evidence that people actually tuned in. According to Qwilt, the live stream accounted for 7 percent of all U.S. data traffic in the fourth quarter (it peaked at 12 percent following the two-minute warning).

The PR bump
As a one-time stunt, this was a great public-relations move for Yahoo. While anecdotal evidence shows a varying quality of streams, the company can boast decent numbers for a low-profile, unconventionally timed game and a happy content partner.

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As a business decision, Yahoo needs to prove it can stream more live sports, to bigger audiences and actually net a profit. It’s difficult to imagine this can be done on early-morning Sunday NFL games alone. The problem is, it’s unlikely the NFL makes more high-profile match-ups available to digital partners while it continues to see live streaming as an experiment.

The advertising angle
Yahoo, which spent $17 million for broadcast rights, almost certainly lost money on this partnership.

Last week, the company boasted that it had signed on more than 30 advertisers to run spots during the broadcast, with Dairy Queen and Toyota coming on to sponsor the pregame and halftime shows, respectively. Inventory was sold out, CEO Marissa Mayer claimed during Yahoo’s third-quarter earnings call.

According to Sports Business Journal, however, advertisers were still able to buy airtime as late as last week, and, moreover, Yahoo had slashed its asking price from $200,000 to $50,000 for a 30-second spot. (The broadcast TV networks typically charge somewhere between $600,000 and $700,000 for Sunday NFL games.)

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The sign of more to come?
“It gave Yahoo some credibility,” said Britt Fero, head of strategy at Publicis Seattle. “The fact that the NFL chose them can be read two ways: One, it’s a low-risk move for [the league]; two, the NFL saw a great capability, especially with Yahoo’s presence in fantasy football and global reach. It made a lot of sense.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean Yahoo — or really any digital media company for the matter — is about to become a major player in live sports. Not when most major league rights are tied up through the next decade.

And yet as video consumption increasingly moves online, there is a legitimate chance that the next bidding war for the NFL or any other sport will include digital media companies — even if the NFL just uses them for leverage.

“Will the Yahoo/NFL live stream kick the NFL off TV? No,” said Stuart Foster, a senior strategist at MCD Partners. “But it will increase the proliferation of streaming options beyond Yahoo and NFL Sunday Ticket — and spark a bidding war between online properties and traditional broadcast powers. This will inevitably drive costs up, which might not be sustainable for Yahoo.”

Image via FanSided

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