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The NFL and Nickelodeon just showed baseball how to market to younger fans

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Rob Manfred better have been watching the NFL this past Sunday, because they handed him a playbook on how to draw in young fans.

Wild Card Round - Chicago Bears v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

When I first heard that the NFL would be broadcasting one of its playoff games on Nickelodeon, my reaction fell somewhere between skepticism and incredulity. Envisioning sideline reporting by SpongeBob SquarePants and Lincoln Loud, commercials for The Krusty Krab and The Chum Bucket, and hours upon hours of both subtle and not-so-subtle advertisements for Nickelodeon television shows, I did not expect a broadcast of a football game so much as a Nickelodeon program with a football game in the background. Despite these reservations — or perhaps because of them — without a rooting interest in the game as a Giants fan, I decided to forego the traditional CBS broadcast and tuned into the channel I grew up on.

What I found surprised me more than a quality episode of Spongebob produced in 2020: a well-designed, well-executed football broadcast that was not only fun and educational for kids who did not know football, but filled with entertaining nostalgia for parents and older siblings who watched the channel when they were younger. Football concepts and jargon were explained using well-crafted analogies suitable to school-age audiences: first downs were described as “completing homework assigns” and trying to score a touchdown when in the red zone was equated to “taking a test”. Special teams was labelled as the “participation component of your grade,” something not as obvious as completing homework assignments or exams, but nonetheless able to raise or sink your grade.

Penalties were explained by Iain Armitage’s Young Sheldon, and All That stars Gabrielle Nevaeh Green and Lex Lumpkin joined Noah Eagle and Nate Burleson on the broadcast team as the booth analyst and sideline reporter, respectively. The traditional Nickelodeon elements were there, it is true — the endzone was renamed the Slime Zone, for example, complete with CGI slime cannons for every touchdown — but they were employed sparingly and tastefully, a fun addition to the broadcast without taking it over.

It was a resounding success, and in the process, the NFL and Nickelodeon just handed every other sports league in the country a playbook on how to engage in youth outrage: by specifically targeting young fans with a special broadcast for certain nationally-broadcast games.

For example, what better way for Major League Baseball to try and build interest in the sport among younger fans than by Nickelodeon broadcasts of the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game? Cast members from All That can fill a similar role that they did during the football game, providing commentary in the booth and interviewing players in the dugouts. The network could position CGI slime cannons centered on home plate, ready to fill the field with virtual slime on every long ball during the Derby, or whenever a runner crosses home plate during the game.

If they wanted to get old school — similar to the way that they dropped references to Keenan and Kel, Drake and Josh, and Legends of the Hidden Temple, among other shows — they could even bring in Jimmy Neutron to explain basic Statcast data like exit velocity if they wanted to highlight new trends in the game. The possibilities are as endless as the production team’s imagination!

Most importantly, such a broadcast would help MLB with its biggest weakness, marketing its own players. The league has struggled with that in recent years, with pretty much every attempt to “let the kids play,” as the slogan goes, resulting not in a celebration of the game, but an argument over the game’s unwritten rules. A Nickelodeon broadcast would sidestep the issue entirely, as the very nature of both the All-Star Game and the station encourages animated personalities and emotion on the field. And for those players that don’t like the limelight in that way, such as Mike Trout, well, Nickelodeon could simply resort to the Little League World Series-style fun facts that they pulled out on numerous occasions on Sunday, telling the world a player’s favorite flavor of ice cream on more than one instance.

There’s a lot more that I could say about the possibilities that a Nickelodeon broadcast would bring to baseball, such as how the teenagers serving on the broadcast could encourage children to express their sports fandom through the media, or how the All-Star Game MVP getting slimed in addition to (or instead of?) receiving a new car would help cement the player in the minds of younger fans, or how even the league could add a few fans simply because a child turned on the station expecting to see an episode of The Astronauts but decided to stay because they saw Kate Godfrey talking to Aaron Judge about his favorite dog breed. All of these scenarios, and countless more, are possible, if Major League Baseball decided for once to be bold and embrace something new.

I hope you were watching on Sunday, Mr. Manfred. And I hope you were taking notes, because the NFL just showed you how it’s done. A little bit of slime is a good place to start.