Can Twitter become the next ESPN?

Twitter lands NFL deal to live stream Thursday Night Football
Twitter lands NFL deal to live stream Thursday Night Football

On any given day, a look at what's trending in Twitter can shed life on what people are talking about in politics, pop culture, entertainment and hard news. For better or for worse, #JustinDeactivatedParty and Black Olives Matter were trending Tuesday.

But where Twitter really has a chance to shine is with sports. In this DVR-ed, time-shifted, on demand world that we live in, sports continues to be one of the few things that people watch (and tweet about) LIVE in order to share a communal experience.

I have all the episodes of HBO's "The Night Of" piling up to watch at a later date. I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers. But Usain Bolt's 100 meter final in Rio on Sunday night? My wife and I made sure to watch that live. (Mercifully, we got the kids to bed in time.)

So is it any wonder that Twitter (TWTR, Tech30) is increasingly betting on sports in order to carve out a niche for itself in the social media landscape?

Twitter is reported to be close to a deal that will get its app on Apple's (AAPL, Tech30) TV product. Twitter's stock surged nearly 7% Monday after The New York Times wrote about the talks.

Now why does Twitter on a TV make sense? It's not because people need or want to read Donald Trump's latest insults (or my inane rambling) on their 55-inch flat screen. It's because of sports.

Remember that Twitter also owns the livestreaming app Periscope.

Twitter recently signed a deal with the NFL that will allow it to livestream 10 Thursday Night Football games starting this season. It probably helped that Twitter CFO Anthony Noto used to be the CFO of the NFL -- as well as a former Goldman Sachs (GS) banker.

But the NFL isn't the only sports league embracing Twitter. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have all signed deals that will allow Twitter to stream some of their games.

Related: Can Donald Trump save Twitter?

So did the Pac-12 sports conference in college -- which includes popular schools like UCLA, USC and the University of Nike (NKE), oops, I meant Oregon.

Twitter needs to stay relevant. It also needs to sell more ads. And sports could be the best way to accomplish both.

It's hard to imagine that people will ever decide to DVR the Super Bowl so they can watch it on Tuesday night and zoom past the commercials instead.

That's why Anheuser-Busch (BUD), Pepsi (PEP), Fiat Chrysler (FCAM) and others continue to pay big bucks year after year to have their ads shown during the Super Bowl.

Related: Twitter to live stream Thursday Night NFL games

Sports fans also seem to be increasingly getting used to the second screen experience -- watching a play on TV and tweeting about it seconds later from their phone.

But Twitter is never going to out-Facebook Facebook. Most Twitter investors now begrudgingly realize that. Twitter's user growth has stagnated -- and so has its stock price. Despite a recent rebound, shares are still down nearly 20% so far in 2016.

Meanwhile, Facebook keeps finding new users -- and creating or buying new products that add even more to its revenue and profit machine. Its stock is not far from an all-time high.

Related: Is Twitter finally about to get bought?

But Twitter could become the next ESPN -- without having to worry about those pesky cable carriage agreements. Just ask Disney (DIS) investors how that's been working out lately.

You could argue that excitement about Twitter's sports deals are helping the stock rebound too. Shares are up 30% since Twitter's disappointing earnings report last month and have soared 50% since hitting an all-time low in May.

So if Twitter wants to survive and thrive as an independent company (instead of selling out like LinkedIn (LNKD, Tech30) is to Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30)) then Twitter should continue to embrace the fact that it's the main social media place to be when something is happening live.

If people eventually talk about a great one-handed catch by Odell Beckham, Jr. on Facebook (FB, Tech30) -- but only after they first saw it live on Twitter -- then that's something Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and the company's investors would probably cheer.

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