From SpongeBob to TikTok, leagues and broadcasters using many methods to attract, retain young fans


There were plenty of critics when CBS announced four years ago that it would produce a kids-centric broadcast of an NFL playoff game on Nickelodeon.

Now, if a league or network isn’t doing something to appeal to younger fans, they are behind the times.

Nickelodeon will air its fifth NFL game on Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs face the San Francisco 49ers for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It will also mark the first alternate broadcast of a Super Bowl game.

For CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, the progress from Nickelodeon’s first game during the playoffs in the 2020 season to now has surpassed even his wildest expectations.

“I thought it would be kind of fun with the younger announcers and other hosts, but I never thought it was going to for three hours be this explosion of graphics and commentary and augmented reality. I really credit the folks at Nickelodeon with their technicians and graphic designers and all that and what they’ve done with our CBS sports brethren,” McManus said. “We’ve set a new standard every time. So many fathers and mothers have come up to me and said they’ve never watched a game with their young son or daughter, but they love the Nickelodeon experience.”

The thought of SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star describing a Travis Kelce touchdown isn’t for everyone, but it does target an audience and demographic that is important to future success.

In an age where viewing is measured more by minutes than hours, and cord cutting shows no signs of slowing down, any increases that leagues and networks can get is huge.

“We know that those who you expose to the game are much more likely to become fans, but it’s also about how do we approach the availability of our games and how do we give different experiences? How do we tailor in an appropriate way but still deliver a high quality viewer experience that caters toward different parts of our fan base?” said NFL EVP of Media Distribution Hans Schroeder.

Besides two Nickelodeon games this season, the NFL partnered with Disney+ and ESPN+ to have a “Toy Story” themed broadcast during the Oct. 1 game in London between the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars.

By all indications, the Nickelodeon and Disney games were successful. The four previous Nickelodeon games have averaged at least 900,000 viewers while the “Toy Story” contest was the biggest live event to date on Disney+ according to the ESPN.

According to the NFL and Nielsen, the audience share for ages 2 to 11 was up 4% while 12 to 17 increased 5%.

“I’ve always felt usually grabs your attention around the time that you’re able to play it. Now we’re able to grab their attention a little bit earlier, with the way that Nickelodeon puts on these games,” said Nate Burleson, who reprises his role as a commentator on the Nickelodeon game Sunday.

The NFL is not alone in trying different ways to cultivate younger fans. The NHL will present its second “Big City Greens” game on ESPN and Disney+ later this season. The NBA and Marvel teamed up in 2021 to present an alternate broadcast featuring The Avengers.

“Like every sports league or media entity right now, we are well aware that the consumption level and behavior of younger viewers is different. There are more choices and fragmentation from a content distribution standpoint than ever before,” said Dave Lehanski, the NHL’s EVP of Business Development & Innovation. “There’s a lot of opportunity in all of that to create different types of content.”

In many ways though, using animation is not new when it comes to teaching sports and its rules to young viewers. The Walt Disney Company produced animated Sports Goofy shorts in the 1940s about and baseball.

Much like Goofy resonated back then, SpongeBob and Slinky Dog from “Toy Story” are teaching rules and strategy now.

Animation also isn’t the only avenue to get younger viewers. The NFL’s increased investment in flag as well as its “Play 60” program, which encourages exercise, have appealed to diverse audiences.

ESPN has also had success with young announcers. The network uses an all-youth crew, mostly from the Bruce Beck broadcast camp, for a KidsCast during the MLB Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

“I think the unique nature of of the kids in Williamsport participating and really leveraging that within the broadcast in a way that I think is really special and unique,” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s Senior VP of League Programming and Acquisitions.

Networks and leagues also continue to experiment with social media and creating more viral highlights to keep younger fans interested.

“There’s just so many more tools now at our disposal to address the complex consumption habits of young fans. They like live games, but obviously they like watching highlights, consuming content on social media and creating their own content. The pie has many more pieces to it for young fans,” Lehanski said.




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