When Michael Thomas scored the first touchdown of Sunday’s wild-card game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints, fans watching the game on CBS saw a close angle of him spiking the football. Fans watching on Nickelodeon, the children’s channel, saw something much more exciting: digital slime cannons spewing Nickelodeon’s signature green goo all over the end zone.
“There we go with the slime cannons. Ayyy, that is epic!” said Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, a 15-year-old Nickelodeon star and one of the game’s commentators.
Nickelodeon has long featured various sports and athletes on its television shows — and has also had a robust presence at the Super Bowl in recent years — but broadcasting a full N.F.L. playoff game is a first. It went all out on something it thought the children and teenagers, who are its core audience, would enjoy.
The score bug and digital information superimposed on the field were done so in bright orange, lime green and purple. A giant image of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants appeared on the nets behind field-goal posts. Players were given googly eyes and hamburger hats. The Saints quarterbacks Drew Brees and Taysom Hill were compared to an even more famous duo: SpongeBob and his best friend, Patrick Star.
The differences were not limited to digital ephemera. Rules that adult football fans are assumed to understand were instead explained. An analyst, Nate Burleson, made frequent use of (sometimes tortured) analogies, at one point explaining that driving down the field was like studying, and that snaps in the red zone were the test. Noah Eagle, the play-by-play announcer, said excitedly at one point that New Orleans receiver Deonte Harris was “hotter than a Peruvian puff pepper.”
That is a reference to an episode of the Nickelodeon show “Drake and Josh” from 2005, when Eagle, who is 24, was just 8.
Until recently it was hard to imagine Nickelodeon showing an entire N.F.L. game. “We are not encouraging anybody to play or not play. We are there as fans, and we are celebrating as fans,” Cyma Zarghami, then Nickelodeon’s president, told The New York Times nearly three years ago in response to questions about associating with a violent sport that can cause head trauma.
“The actual sport doesn’t ever actually get to Nickelodeon,” she said.
But the sports media landscape has changed since then. Nickelodeon has a new president, Brian Robbins. It is also part of a new corporate structure, which brings with it different imperatives. In 2019, Viacom — which owned cable channels like Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central — remerged with CBS, which pays the N.F.L. a billion dollars annually to show its games.
All of the N.F.L.’s television contracts expire in 2021 and 2022. CBS may still be thought of as the Tiffany Network at league headquarters, but in some ways it has a weaker hand to play than its rivals. ViacomCBS is much smaller than competitors like the Walt Disney Company (ABC and ESPN), Comcast (NBC) and AT&T (DirecTV and Warner Media), and it has more than twice as much debt on its balance sheet as the similarly sized Fox Corp.
Putting Sunday’s game on Nickelodeon in addition to CBS was one way to potentially impress the league ahead of negotiations. Viewership for the N.F.L. would increase, along with the opportunity to capture a new generation of football fans.
ESPN, albeit without a children’s channel, has pursued a similar strategy, bringing its “MegaCast” production — typically used for the college football national championship game — to its Sunday wild-card game. The Baltimore Ravens’ victory over the Tennessee Titans was shown on six different ESPN channels: ABC and ESPN (traditional), Freeform (fun), ESPN2 (coaches’ room), ESPN+ (analytics-focused) and a Spanish-language broadcast on ESPN Deportes.
Television networks have long used big football games to advertise their other offerings, and Nickelodeon’s wild-card game was no different. There were commercials for other Nickelodeon shows and a section in players’ bios that included their favorite Nickelodeon show. Members of the reboot of the teen sketch show “All That” did impressions throughout the game; in an awkward moment, an impression of the rapper Cardi B segued into a referee calling a personal conduct foul and a microphone in the nearly empty stadium picking up a player yelling an expletive.
The broadcast seemed like a hit, at least according to the reaction of mostly older millennial and middle-aged sportswriters. “To have the game stripped of all its self-importance and hubris was an absolute delight,” wrote Sports Illustrated.
But the excitement of sportswriters who have seen hundreds of N.F.L. games is not the same thing as success. They are not the target audience — children are.
Most important for Nickelodeon is how many of them watched, data that will be available Tuesday. Most important for the N.F.L. is whether this alternative broadcast helps turn more children into the kinds of football fans who will ask their parents to take them to games or to buy jerseys, and who eventually pay for their own tickets to games when they become adults.
That’ll take a lot longer to figure out.