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Football, TV’s Biggest Game, Makes Massive Play for Smaller Crowds

Green Bay Packers vs. New England Patriots

(Courtesy of Winslow Townson/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

The closest thing to sports running on the Freeform cable network since it came under Disney ownership in 2001 might be “Make It Or Break It,” a soapy series about the lives of young gymnasts hoping to get to the Olympics. On Sunday, Freeform will really be taking the field.

Viewers who tune to Freeform looking for “Hunger Games,” “Alice in Wonderland” or one of the movies Freeform typically shows each weekend will at 1 p.m. tomorrow find themselves part of a massive sports play. Freeform will show –of all things — an NFL Wild Card match between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans. Nickelodeon and Telemundo, two other TV outlets known for things other than sports, will also try football on for size this weekend. It’s an experiment. We’ve never done it before,” says Sarah Lindman, senior vice president of content planning and strategy at Freeform, in an interview. “Our expectation is that we will be able to deliver additional audience to a traditional football broadcast — a new audience.” Football has long been TV’s ultimate big-audience sport. Nearly every one of the medium’s most-watched broadcasts is an NFL football game. On Sunday, however, the National Football League and several of the media companies eager to keep ties to its high-rated matches will swing for niche crowds.

Freeform intends to court younger viewers by burnishing lots of conversation rather than play by play, using series stars like Ashley Nicole Williams, Jordan Buhat, Demetria McKinney, Cierra Ramirez and Trevor Jackson; singer Jordin Sparks; actor and former Titan Eddie George; and actors from Disney projects like Kelly Marie Tran from “The Last Jedi” and “Raya And The Last Dragon.” These people and others like them will hold forth with ESPN’s Jesse Palmer and Maria Taylor in segments that are set to last as long as the chatter is interesting. “There are no rules on that,” says Lee Fitting, ESPN’s senior vice president of production, in an interview. “We could have a guest on for three or five minutes, or we could have a guest on for 15 minutes — however the conversation goes. We just play that by ear.” Freeform will also present an exclusive halftime show led by DJ Khaled that features a special guest.

Nickelodeon plans to host a Wild Card game Sunday between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints tilted toward kids and families. There will be play-by-play commentary and reporting from two members of the network’s popular “All That” sketch-comedy series, animated graphics, and intriguing visuals. The network will even offer a halftime review of a new SpongeBob SquarePants project. And there will be green slime, the goo that is a signature element of the ViacomCBS kids outlet.

TV will offer other tailored broadcasts as well. The Wild Card games, an expansion of the league’s playoffs approved earlier this year, will turn up on video outlets not known for showing football: NBCUniversal’s Universo Spanish-language outlet. ViacomCBS’ CBS All Access streaming-video service. NBCUniversal’s Telemundo plans a Spanish-language broadcast of the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. ESPN Plus, the ESPN subscription-video hub, plans to analyze betting odds and spotlight data in a version of the Ravens-Titans match for a decidedly more adult crowd. NBCU’s Peacock will stream the Browns-Steelers game live, and offer a bespoke post-game show. ESPN2 plans a broadcast focused more heavily on real-time game analysis. Amazon gets into the game with its own broadcast of the Bears-Saints game. And for people who just want the usual big-game trappings, they will be available on ESPN, ABC, CBS and NBC. It’s easy to think of the new broadcasts as experiments. In a moment when consumers can often get the exact thing they want, the networks are tailoring their efforts toward unique swaths of viewers, rather than having everyone tune in for the same experience. NFL executives believe so-called “mega-casts” — a game broadcast in several different formats — could become a more integral part of the experience. “I think as we look forward, you will see us do more and more of this,” says Hans Schroeder, executive vice president and chief operating officer of NFL Media, in an interview. “The main broadcast will always be an important part, but we think there are ways to add to it.”

Even the NFL can only get so far in bringing audiences to its games. Ratings for the NFL’s 2020 season were down as much as 10% as the league shifted certain games due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rival sports leagues moved some of their own games scuttled in the earlier part of the year to the fall, providing new distractions to sport fans. The NFL navigates viewer turbulence after enjoying two seasons of audience growth — and fretting over dips in 2016 and 2017.

Viewers may be more willing to embrace offbeat concepts built around sports. With people staying close to home and avoiding big crowds at bars or parties, there may be a new yen for an experience other than the typical big game designed for a group at a big gathering. During the pandemic, “experimentation has been so widely accepted. We are seeing networks really push the envelope,” says Daniel Cohen, senior vice president of global media rights consulting at Octagon, the Interpublic Group sports-marketing agency.

The new broadcasts come as Walt Disney, Fox Corp., ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal face the end of valuable football-rights contracts with the NFL in 2021 and 2022. Renewing them is crucial. NFL games command TVs biggest audiences and highest ad prices and are one of the few truly dependable assets the companies have as consumers migrate to streaming on-demand video. The NFL’s Schroder declined to offer details about the current state of discussions.

The companies are already in talks with the league about renewals, and showing how games can be displayed across a broader portfolio of media properties seems to be a critical part of the discussions. “Any negotiation we are doing in the future, I think, will have a ViacomCBS element to it, whether it’s through programming or being able to reach a vastly different audience than we could have in the past,” CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus told Variety in December. NBC Sports, meanwhile, has imported Steve Kornacki, the NBC News political data guru, to its Sunday football pre-game show in a bid to woo new crowds. “He can bring some new eyeballs from people who are interested in his khaki pants and his performance on the news side — and might be interested in sampling some football,” Sam Flood, NBC Sports’ executive producer and president of production, told Variety last month.

ESPN has been working with “mega-casts” for years, particularly in college football. On January 1, ESPN offered nearly 40 different video and audio presentations of six different Bowl games, including a chance for fans to listen to a team’s hometown announcers or a “Skycast” that features the view from a camera above the action. “Our mantra is keep trying new things, keep experimenting,” says Fitting. “Some things will stick. Others won’t. But things that do stick? Let’s try it again.”

The networks don’t expect the ancillary formats to bring in the same ratings as their flagship game broadcasts. At Freeform, for example, executives hope football can woo “similar” viewership to a weekend movie, says Lindman, suggesting she will also be interested in social-media engagement and feedback from colleagues across Disney. “There are other ways of looking at potential success,” she says.

These are early days for bids to please kids, teens and people interested in sports wagers. Even advertising needs to be considered. Rather than filling its broadcast with ads for toys, snacks and kiddie fare, Nickelodeon is likely to run many of the same commercials set to appear during the game on CBS, according to a media buyer familiar with the matter. Individual advertisers may be allowed to swap in something for the younger crowd if they wish, this buyer said. If the new games gain more traction, chances are each will have its own sponsors to go with the bespoke guest stars and gimmicks.

Variety's Brian Steinberg contributed to this post.

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