As Alex Morgan prepared to take the field Saturday for her team's National Women's Soccer League season opener, the Orlando Pride forward posted an update to her Facebook page: "Orlando Pride season opener! First half action live."
Accompanying the text was a broadcast of the game, beamed through Facebook with an assist from the platform's Live API — complete with professionally shot video, cuts, and graphics. It was everything you'd expect to see on TV, except this time it was on Facebook.
The broadcast was Facebook's first live stream of a professional sports event. It reached an audience of 273,249 unique viewers in the first half, according to Facebook. A separate live video of the game's second half reached 348,944 unique viewers, also according to Facebook. The game reached an estimated 554,000 unique viewers in all, according to Cycle, the media company that orchestrated the stream.
In comparison, a National Hockey League playoff game between the Nashville Predators and the Anaheim Ducks pulled in 413,000 average viewers Saturday, according to Nielsen. Nielsen's average viewer number is calculated differently from Facebook’s unique viewers though, so the comparison isn’t completely analogous.
Cycle CEO Jason Stein told BuzzFeed News he expects more live sports broadcasts on Facebook to follow the Orlando Pride's lead. "If you can broadcast sports live on Facebook and reach a significant audience that's bigger than most sporting events on TV, you can expect more people to migrate to this distribution tool," Stein said. "Most sporting events are buried within a thousand different channels on cable. With Facebook Live, you're able to open up an app and see live sports on your phone, delivered right to you."
Cycle, which works with Morgan to develop social content, arranged to stream the game live on her Facebook page via an agreement with the National Women's Soccer League and the Orlando Pride. The league, which doesn't have a TV partner, also broadcasted the game to YouTube. But the game reached far fewer viewers there: a bit over 76,000, according to YouTube.
Facebook is running an experiment where it’s paying athletes, celebrities, and media companies to stream live. Morgan is part of that experiment, according to Cycle, which would not disclose the financials behind the Orlando Pride season opener deal.