It was among the highlights of an experiment by the NFL and CBS in which a second broadcast of the Saints’ first-round playoff victory over the Chicago Bears aired on CBS’s kid-focused cable network. The viewing experience was unlike any in the history of the NFL and perhaps all of American sports. And it offered a glimpse of the fractured and frenzied future of sports consumption.
Instead of the traditional narration from Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, there were graphics aplenty, including that slime in the end zone and on the first down markers. Former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson explained the rules of the game to the uninitiated: “Gaining the 10 yards is like little homework assignments, and then you get into the red zone, and that’s like the test,” he said.
Fifteen-year-old Nickelodeon star Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, attending her first NFL game, was also part of the broadcast team, and she didn’t shy away from the hard questions: How, she asked Burleson at one point, do you go to the bathroom on the field?
As sports leagues struggle to hook Gen Z like previous generations, the NFL has turned to Snapchat and enlisted streaming superstar Ninja to call games on Twitch. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) The Nickelodeon broadcast was the latest gambit, pitched to the league when CBS acquired the rights to one of the two added playoff games this season.
The Nickelodeon telecast was the buzziest, but Sunday’s tripleheader was spread across several specialized broadcasts on linear television and online. ESPN’s main broadcast of the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans could be found on ESPN and ABC, while on ESPN2, ex-coaches and players broke down film of the same game. A watch party featuring interviews with A-list (and not-quite-A-list) stars aired on Freeform. DJ Khaled performed at halftime.
On ESPN Plus, during a stream focused on betting and analytics, fans learned that a Lamar Jackson pass that resulted in an interception had only a 28 percent chance of being completed. When the Titans punted on fourth and two in the fourth quarter, analysts Dan Orlovsky and Mina Kimes were aghast in the analytics room, far more opinionated than broadcasters on the main telecast.
NBC, meanwhile, put its Sunday night game on its new streaming service, Peacock, and on Telemundo, another first.
“Our entire model is based on reach,” Hans Schroeder, executive vice president and chief operating officer of NFL Media, said Sunday night. “The positive responses have been overwhelming [for the Nickelodeon game], but what we did with CBS was a continuation of what we did across Sunday.”
The NFL has long prided itself on being the easiest sport to consume, with most of its games available on broadcast TV. But in a fracturing media environment, fans are migrating to different platforms and expecting curated experiences like the ones they get on Twitter and TikTok.
“It’s not just younger fans, but our Latinx fan base, too, on Telemundo,” Schroeder said. “When you have as broad appeal as we’re fortunate to have, we want to make sure we’re putting out a broad set of experiences on as many screens as we can, and increase the way our fans engage and enjoy the games.”
And there’s no better time to do that than the playoffs. Networks can use their biggest games to drive incremental increases in viewership, potentially build visibility for their streaming platforms and make the biggest sports events feel even bigger. For networks in negotiations with the NFL for new rights packages, it’s also a chance to show what they might do in the future.
“If we get one new fan who wouldn’t have otherwise come across our coverage, that’s a net benefit to us and to the NFL,” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming and acquisitions. “I think the NFL has seen and been impressed by the college football MegaCast and want to see what that looks like with NFL game.”
On Monday night, ESPN will offer 14 different telecasts for the College Football Playoff championship game, ranging from a sky camera feed to local radio broadcasts for Ohio Sate and Alabama, further showing the potential for specialization — and offering a preview of what a Super Bowl on the network might look like.
On social media, at least, the Nickelodeon game was an unqualified success, with the network trending on Twitter and commentators Burleson, Green and Noah Eagle earning rave reviews. In one tricky moment, Burleson had to reckon for young viewers with the violence of the sport, after a Bears wide receiver was ejected for fighting.
“In football there’s going to be pushing and shoving,” he said. “It’s just like when you’re out there playing with your friends at recess or you have you cousins over at the house. It gets physical.”
Schroeder said he was interested in having more NFL games on Nickelodeon. Asked whether the league might consider more exotic broadcasts tailored to other popular shows — such as, say, a “Real Housewives” version on Bravo — he didn’t immediately dismiss it.
“We’ll be open to opportunities,” he said, “and look for where and how we can evolve.”