January 28, 2021

NFL on Nick: Harbinger of the Future or Flash in the Pan?

On January 10th, Nickelodeon and CBS teamed up to create a unique alternative broadcast of the Chicago Bears vs. New Orleans Saints NFL wild-card game. Unlike the traditional NFL broadcast that aired on CBS, the Nickelodeon broadcast was family friendly and kid-centric, with cartoon characters and slime cannons blasting when a touchdown was scored.

The consensus was that the broadcast was well-done and entertaining. Viewership on Nickelodeon averaged 2.06 million, the network’s most-watched program in four years. Even more significant was that overall viewership for the four wild-card games (all networks) was down 18% from 2020, while the audience for the CBS/Nickelodeon game was its highest in six years.

What does the success of Nick’s NFL wild-card game mean for ViacomCBS and for the future of alternative broadcasts for sports?

More Than Just a Ratings Success
There is little doubt that the Nickelodeon broadcast was both a ratings and production success, but there was something far more significant than just the raw numbers. Noah Eagle, son of CBS Sports Broadcaster Ian Eagle, who called the game, described the broadcast as the “…perfect opportunity to captivate a new audience of sports fans and football fans, while being a family friendly broadcast, so that the family can watch it all as a single unit, and have fun. It’s going to be a blend of sports, entertainment, laughs, joy, all of the above.”

Engaging New and Younger Viewers
Nickelodeon understands its viewer and made great efforts to stay true to them. The strategy was not to broadcast the game in a traditional way, but to “Nick-ify” the game. Nickelodeon altered the look of the first-down markers and the line-of-scrimmage during Sunday’s broadcast. They also focused less on facts such as what college the player attended or in what round they were drafted. Instead, Nickelodeon focused on players’ favorite Nick characters or ice cream flavors. The big-picture strategy was to engage younger viewers by humanizing the players to make them more relatable to the future generation of sports fans.

TDG has written extensively about what lies ahead for sports, and in June of 2019, TDG Senior Analysts Mike Fischer and Rob Silvershein released a syndicated report Thoughts on the Future of Televised Sports. In that report, Fischer and Silvershein recommended many of the successful elements that were on display during the Nickelodeon broadcast. They also went further to recommend additional elements to embrace the needs of the younger audience, including customization of the fan experience, accessibility to the broadcast booth, interactivity, and a further embrace of social media.

Winners & Losers
The NFL (Winner) – The NFL was arguably the biggest winner of the night. With a drop in the number of kids who play football at a young age, exposing this group to the joy, beauty, and complexity of this game is paramount to maintaining its number #1 status in terms of American sports popularity. Furthermore, higher viewership only raises the value of the NFL in terms of the rights agreement that are set to expire in 2022.

ViacomCBS (Winner) – The most vulnerable broadcast Network, ViacomCBS, did everything right to combine the best of its broadcast property with the best of its cable brands. The production value was spot on, and anything that ViacomCBS can do to strengthen its relationship with the NFL is critical in terms of holding on to its ownership of its broadcast rights past 2022. ViacomCBS has the thinnest pockets, and every positive result is an important step toward retaining broadcast rights.

The Viewing Public (Winner) – One successful broadcast does not make a trend, but those that oversee sports broadcasting learned a valuable lesson in terms of the proper formula to grow their audience. Should the entities that control production follow the audience research and understand today’s viewing trends (aka quantum viewing), then viewers of all ages will be able to engage with their sport in a more relevant, authentic, and interested manner.
The Purist (Loser) – NFL fans (and all sports fans for that matter), that believe one should limit innovation, and keep the product the same for the sake of purity are going to be disappointed. It was not that long ago that the NFL stood for the “No Fun League”; uniforms were the same, broadcasts were the same, and rules changes that protect the players from injuries were frowned upon. Purists will continue to view their sport but will have to better accept change.

CBS and Nickelodeon did a fantastic job in making the playoff game fun, authentic, and family-friendly. They played upon the nostalgia of old-school Nickelodeon, combining classic graphics, branding elements, and humor into a quality NFL playoff broadcast. The networks were able to introduce the youngest viewers to the joy of football, endearing them to the personalities of the players, and teaching novice parents and kids about the rules of the game. The broadcast was a hit both on the ratings and the social media side.

Cynics would say that, while the broadcast was fun and good natured, people will quickly tire of the slime cannons and hearing about the players ice cream habits. They further point to ESPN’s mixed results from their mega casts. Optimists would point to the great buzz and production value of this game and can point to successful mega casts that happened to be better produced, and easier to find.

No, Nickelodeon will not become a sports juggernaut, but it will continue to air periodic and special sporting events that are “Nick-ified” and fun for younger viewers and their parents. Longer term, the success of the NFC wild-card game is a harbinger of the trend towards more inclusive, interactive, and customized broadcasts that will spell a bright future for televised sports.


A 20-year veteran media executive, Rob Silvershein’s success in today’s competitive media environment is a direct result of his unique experiences spanning traditional, emerging, and startup media platforms. He is an accomplished strategist and spends most of his time advising media companies on how to structure themselves for long term success. He currently lives in Manhattan Beach, CA.

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