Nickelodeon is getting in on that sweet, sweet Super Bowl action. The 36-year-old kids’ channel — part of the Viacom suite of networks that are corporate cousins to Super Bowl airer CBS — has partnered with the NFL for a whole week’s worth of League-themed programming, starting on Feb. 1 and including an hour-long special on the NFL FLAG Championships. The event is the culmination of the NFL’s flag football league for youngsters, hosted by Nick godfather Kel Mitchell and current Nick star Isabela Moner (“100 Things to Do Before High School”).
Cynical observers are likely to raise an eyebrow at the NFL’s attempt to form a more kid-friendly persona amid increasing evidence that playing football might not be so great for children, or adults, for that matter. What better way to do that than to tie itself more securely to the network of “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Bella and the Bulldogs” (in which a middle school cheerleader is suddenly made QB of the football team)? The deal is also a way for Nickelodeon to continue its ratings recovery after a lenghty decline.
“It’s obviously a way for them to promote the Super Bowl to the families and the children,” says Dr. Rodney Paul, professor of sports management at Syracuse University. “But the interesting thing about the FLAG program is that it may be a way to keep children playing in a situation that doesn’t have the connotation of being as violent as a sport.”
The FLAG program itself is part of the NFL’s PLAY 60 initiative, which offers ways for kids to get 60 minutes of activity a day instead of playing “Crossy Road” on your iPad for four hours straight. With flag football, mom and dad can theoretically sate their nugget’s sports lust while also reducing the risk of concussions and other contact-related injuries. It would also help postpone the decision about playing contact football, making it sort of a gateway sport. “That could be a very interesting model going forward,” Paul says.
And if they play in a flag football league sponsored by the NFL, in real NFL team jerseys, that’s another win for the League.
The NFL’s traditional TV audience is steadily increasing, so all those kids in League jerseys represent potential fans. Networks make ratings guarantees for sports based on households, rather than particular demographics, so the coming senescence of the NFL audience isn’t exactly a death knell. But the League doesn’t want to go the way of Major League Baseball, which skews older than any televised sport but golf, it will need to build a firm base of future fans.
“When I get time to sit with my parents and watch football, which is something we did when I was younger, that's a natural connection that occurs,” says Paul. “For a few hours, you just care about your favorite team.”