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James Fenn | NFL and Fifa show creative bravery in times of crisis

James Fenn, Strategist at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, explains what the NFL, Fifa and Marvel can show us about the ambition sport needs to come back better than ever.

James Fenn

What do Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and SpongeBob SquarePants have in common? No, it isn’t that two of the biggest quarterbacks in the world have purchased second properties in ‘Bikini Bottom’, SpongeBob’s fictional home.

In fact, all three have made an appearance in this year’s NFL playoffs, thanks to an innovative broadcast partnership between the NFL and Nickelodeon. It’s a partnership that shows the creative ambition that the world of sport is going to need as it emerges from the darkest days of Covid-19.

The Nickelodeon broadcast of the Bears-Saints playoff game on the  January 10, made possible thanks to CBS (a Viacom sister channel of Nickelodeon) sharing their rights for the broadcast, was above all great fun.

Read this: Nickelodeon, CBS Sports “Nick-ify” NFL playoff game to reach younger audience

Designed to appeal to the network’s child-friendly audience, the broadcast featured slime, cartoon graphics, guest appearances from stars of Nickelodeon’s shows (the aforementioned Mr. SquarePants made an appearance) and unique ways to visualise the intricacies of an NFL game. The commentary was intentionally simplistic, intended to give kids who had never watched the sport before a basic introduction, for example: “Allen Robinson hopes to run and catch a ball from his quarterback.”

Even for the most die-hard fan, it was nice to see a sports broadcast not take itself too seriously. But this was something clearly built with a singular goal in mind – introduce more young people to the sport. Every detail of the partnership was intended to make the game more accessible, more fun and to get kids coming back for more. It seems odd to say – but this was clear simplicity of thought in its objectives and execution – and that’s exactly why it worked.

The broadcast was watched by over 2 million people on Nickelodeon. While that number doesn’t compare to that of the main broadcast on CBS, there is no doubt that many of those watching will never have watched an NFL game before. It also triggered a wave of positive engagement on social media – making a nice change from fans questioning refereeing calls or use of technology during the game. It was, I think by any measure, a huge success.

What made this partnership so notable was its ambition. This wasn’t a meaningless mid-season game during a run-of-the-mill season. This was a playoff game, one of the league’s marquee moments. It also came in the middle of a pandemic, when the league is having to balance loss of revenue from no fans in stadiums and reduced television audiences.

Any decision to try a new approach like this one creates risk. You are potentially splitting your audience, and you risk the ire of some of the game’s core fans – put off by a seeming corruption of the sport they love. This move took bravery, but bravery motivated by growing the sport in the long-term. The NFL knows its product and knows what it takes to succeed. But it took a risk anyway, in search of growth.

Another rights-holder in a similar position is Fifa, which recently announced an innovative new entertainment partnership with Universal Music Group. ‘Fifa Sound’ will bring together footballers and musicians from across the world, as a means of further embedding the game in wider culture and reaching new, younger audiences. It is another strategic move indicative of the wider shift that has seen athletes become far more than simply sportspeople, but rather being cultural leaders and voices beyond the pitch.

Much like the NFL’s partnership with Nickelodeon, it represents a rights-holder moving to their audience of the present and the future. Not being stuck up on how they’ve always done things but focusing on the audience interest and need and taking a risk in order to fulfil it.

Read this: ‘The aim is to speak to a truly global audience’ | Why Fifa is getting into the podcast game

These creative swings certainly aren’t limited to the world of sport. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been the dominant cultural force in the world for the last decade. Five of the top fifteen grossing films ever made have come out of the MCU in the last decade alone. Just like the NFL, they know their formula, and they stick to it with huge success. Churning out hit after hit, engaging huge audiences.

But over the weekend the MCU released WandaVision – the new straight to Disney+ show that represents the first creative output from the studio in over a year. It’s fair to say, it doesn’t fit the template for success the studio has laid out.

In short 20-minute episodes on a streaming site, the show, so far, is almost entirely in black and white and full of references to sitcoms from the 60s and 70s. Accessible ‘anyone can understand it’ blockbuster fodder this isn’t. Certainly, lots of the DNA is still there, but opening the series the way they have certainly takes a risk that some of the audience never makes it through the series.

This show was never meant to be the first piece of MCU activity since 2019’s Avengers Endgame, but the shutdown of cinemas worldwide has put it in that position.

Marvel could have waited, they could have held the show back until blockbusters had returned and their audience was in a safer position. But they didn’t, just like the NFL they chose a moment of crisis to put their best foot forward. Putting out one of their most creatively challenging (even if only in the context of Marvel) pieces of entertainment at a moment of audience weakness, not strength.

Speaking to Emma Wright, a colleague in our entertainment practice, she sees a clear shift of focus from Disney when it comes to their most valuable IP: “In December, Disney announced a huge upcoming slate of content. Yes, there will be the big cinematic releases, but with more than seventeen projects in the works for Star Wars alone there will also be niche stories for the most committed to feast upon.

“Many of the most hardcore fans of Disney IP like Marvel and Star Wars have been cynical in the past about the studio’s treatment of the universes they have, as fans, invested so much in for so long. Those core fans are the most vocal and able to turn tides of opinion with mainstream audiences by pushing down ratings through things like ‘Metacritic’ and ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ that then influence what Ron Howard calls “tag-along” decisions to see the film or not.

“But Disney is enjoying the luxury of their own streaming platform and being able to cater to that core audience’s every whim and curiosity. Ever wonder about that bounty hunter who appears on screen for thirty seconds in Empire Strikes Back? Here’s an eight-part series about them. It’s a huge commitment to exploring the niche within these blockbuster IPs that will gain them the favour of the core community and through them win over mainstream audiences and ensure Disney-era Marvel and Star Wars remain part of the zeitgeist.”

The approach of these huge, market-leading organisations underlines the importance of creative bravery at times of crisis. Each could have clung to the safety of their chosen format, continued to pump out strong results and tried to weather the storm of the pandemic. But in doing so you aren’t progressing, you aren’t growing. You are taking the risk that some other nimbler property will innovate and challenge you. You are setting yourself up for David to have a swing at Goliath.

Times of crisis and change that are happening in the sports industry right now shake up the status quo and lead to a period of disruption and opportunity. An opportunity someone will take. Aiming to return just as you were before isn’t enough. Making a success of sport’s return requires a level of creative ambition. To be brave enough to target change, when all you want is security.

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