ESPN has dubbed its first crack at a kids-focused NFL game “Toy Story Funday Football.”
But for this Sunday’s alternate stream of Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Atlanta Falcons on ESPN+, the stakes are high for Disney/ESPN as they and other NFL TV partners like Paramount Global’s CBS Sports strive to attract younger audiences.
Disney has defined family entertainment for nearly a century, and ESPN has led the way in alternate telecasts, such as the popular three-year-old “ManningCast” on ESPN2, “Big City Greens” for the NHL, and “MegaCasting” the College Football Playoff National Championship.
But ESPN’s primetime “Monday Night Football” package made it difficult to find a daytime opening for an alt-cast that would appeal to kids and families, so the 9:30 a.m. ET London kickoff finally provided an opportunity.
On the other hand, CBS owns a Sunday afternoon package, which made it easy for sister network Nickelodeon to target kids before their bedtimes.
Since 2021, Nickelodeon has rolled out several successful “Slime-casts” of NFL games, complete with slime cannons and SpongeBob SquarePants. Last season’s Christmas Day “Slime-cast” of the Los Angeles Rams vs. Denver Broncos, for example, averaged 906,000 viewers.
And on Feb. 11, Nickelodeon will create a slime-filled version of Super Bowl 58 that will air alongside the traditional CBS broadcast.
If the “Toy Story” game is a success, the floodgates could open for Disney’s other iconic brands, said sources. There’s a vast amount of family-friendly intellectual properties, ranging from Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and Lucasfilm to films like “The Avengers,” “The Lion King, “Frozen” and “Black Panther.”
Could we one day watch an animated “Elsa” visit the frozen tundra of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field? Anything is possible, said sources.
Waiting in the wings are other NFL TV partners who’ve been given the green light by league media czar Brian Rolapp to create their own alt-casts.
NBCUniversal’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which grossed $1.4 billion in box office, would be a natural fit for the NFL.
Described as “Toy Story Meets the NFL,” Sunday’s Jags-Falcons will mark the NFL’s most ambitious attempt to reach kids and their parents. The Week 4 stream will feature iconic characters from the film, including Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
Real-life NFL players will be transformed into various characters from the franchise that generated over $3 billion at the box office.
Instead of Wembley Stadium, ESPN’s animated game will be played in Andy’s Bedroom. There will also be “how-to” videos to teach kids the game of football and pre-recorded conversations with Jaguars and Falcons stars.
On the call for ESPN will be Booger McFarland, Drew Carter, and 12-year-old Pepper Persley. There will even be a halftime-show, with Duke Caboom attempting a motorcycle jump.
Today’s kids and young adults are more likely to watch clips/highlights than full games. That’s a major problem for advertisers buying expensive advertising time on linear game telecasts.
The NFL was thrilled when Amazon Prime Video drew viewers with a median age of 47 years old for “Thursday Night Football” last season — seven years younger than the 50-something viewers on other networks such as ESPN, CBS, NBC, and Fox.
The NFL dominates entertainment. But it always wants more, noted Andrew Brandt, the former Packers executive turned author of “The Sunday Seven” newsletter.
“The earlier they can corral this group, the better chance these kids grow up being invested fans,” said Brandt. “Guys like me would never watch these telecasts. But it’s not about us — it’s about enticing a new demo.”
ESPN and Disney deliberately picked the classic 1995 film because it hits a chronological sweet spot. Many kids who grew up watching the “Toy Story” movies are young parents now themselves. Disney and ESPN view the popular franchise as a perfect vehicle for them to introduce NFL action to their young kids.
“There are many great Disney IP options but the fit of ‘Toy Story’ was ideal,” Tim Reed, ESPN’s vice president of NFL programming, told Front Office Sports. “The movies’ multi-generational appeal and iconic characters, plus the Pixar brand equity, was a great combination for us to lean into.”
These cutting-edge, animated telecasts are difficult to pull off, warned Eric Weinberger, the former NFL Network executive turned president of Bleav. But as live sports move to streaming — and leagues confront the uncomfortable reality of their graying audiences — they could be the wave of the future.
As Weinberger noted: “Great ideas are always copied and then sometimes advanced upon. There is not shame in that.”
Jags quarterback Trevor Lawrence, for one, thinks “Toy Story” is a great way to bring in younger fans.
“It will be cool for the kids. If I was a kid, and they did that for a football game, it would definitely be entertaining,” Lawrence told reporters this week.