Jim Nantz will suit up Sunday to call his ninth Super Bowl, and in another booth in Allegiant Stadium, SpongeBob SquarePants will call his first.
CBS and Nickelodeon are delivering a historic, kid-focused, augmented-reality-filled production—the Super Bowl’s first alternate telecast, with an entirely separate production and broadcast crew on another network. This will be their fifth NFL alt-cast, with lovable characters and slime explosions. SpongeBob and his best friend, Patrick Star, will even be voiced by Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke, the same actors who have played the characters for decades.
Why should you care? Well, it’s about more than a sea sponge and a starfish. NFL alt-casts have become the norm in recent years, including ESPN’s Toy Story game, ESPN2’s ManningCast, and Dude Perfect Twitch streams. But, during the biggest event on the sports calendar, the league and CBS are devoting significant resources and personnel to this broadcast. In short, the NFL is serious about alt-casts, and they could become even more of a trend, if not the future, in sports broadcasting.
“I think you’ll see us continue to build on that. We’re just scratching the surface,” the NFL’s EVP of media distribution Hans Schroeder tells Front Office Sports. “What we’re really focused on is how we give our NFL fans an increasing number of options and experiences across screens to engage with the NFL how they want to engage with it.”
Getting Serious About SpongeBob
Nickelodeon has done three separate tests at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas to prepare for Sunday, CBS Sports VP of remote technical operations Jason Cohen said. That’s because, unlike past Nick broadcasts that resemble the main telecast with some AR incorporated, the game will be fully set in Bikini Bottom.
The league is proving it works to target specific viewers on the platforms they already tune into, Schroeder says. It doesn’t hurt that during the 2023 regular season, viewership grew 4% among 2- to 11-year-olds, and 5% for 12- to 17-year-olds.
“The fact that we’re able to continue to grow that fan base, and not just with what we’re doing through these things, but we look outside of that to the investment in flag [football] and sort of getting more young people playing football of all forms,” Schroeder says. “We think all those ingredients are really, really important.”
Outside of Nickelodeon viewers, the production is likely to blow up on social media with nostalgic SpongeBob fans. (The January 2021 Nickelodeon broadcast generated 2 billion social media impressions, FOS previously reported.) The promised rendition of “Sweet Victory” will undoubtedly be a highly shareable clip—and cast a much wider net than Sunday’s Nickelodeon viewers.
The biggest threat to an alt-cast: technical difficulties. It stands to reason that if viewers can’t watch the game, they’ll be more likely to switch to the main broadcast. ESPN’s fully animated Toy Story broadcast was a hit, but viewers noticed tons of glitches. Nickelodeon’s tech has largely held up in previous broadcasts, outside of some bad words caught on a hot mic.
Disney can’t love that a competitor is airing the first kids’ broadcast at a Super Bowl. But don’t count Disney out: Before the Toy Story game, sources told FOS that other intellectual properties (Star Wars? Marvel? Disney princesses?) could be on the table in the future.
Should other leagues lock in on kids-casts?
For its first NFL broadcast—a Bears-Saints playoff game in 2021—Nickelodeon clocked more than 2 million viewers, but that dipped under 900,000 for the ’23 Christmas Day game. Both are a fraction of an NFL broadcast, but they’re far beyond what other leagues are drawing for their kids-casts.
About 175,000 viewers tuned in for Disney and Disney XD’s animated NHL broadcast in March 2023, according to Sports Business Journal. The NBA has shown the Slam Dunk Contest on Cartoon Network and did an AR Marvel-themed alt-cast of a Warriors-Pelicans game in 2021 that got 274,000 viewers. The MLB offers a KidsCast during the Little League Classic, which uses an all-kids broadcast team. But none of these events were title games, much less the Super Bowl.
Schroeder says some factors make it easier for the NFL to produce alt-casts than other leagues, specifically having fewer games on the calendar, but he suspects other sports will start doing more of them “in their own way.” Will we see Bugs Bunny return to basketball at the NBA Finals? Mickey Mouse in an MLB clubhouse? Let’s see how Sunday goes.