Dawn will have barely broken here when the Atlanta Falcons become the tenth team to face a wanderlusting Jacksonville Jaguars team in London. For the NFL-obsessed Brits, it’s the 25th time in total they will have the opportunity to see a game with a late afternoon kickoff that gives them more than enough time to get appropriately inebriated so as to ebsure tolerating what almost always seems to be a lackluster game. For folks here in the States, it’s often a game designed for multitasking while brunching, praying or trying to deal with hangovers.
But that’s how adults operate on Sunday mornings. For generations, kids used to have Sunday mornings virtually to themselves. 90s kids were weaned on the first batch of Nickeolodeon original animation such as REN AND STIMPY, THE RUGRATS and DOUG. Go back a little further and dozens of independent TV stations would roll out hosted versions of the shows that dominated weekday afternoons, dropping in such remembered weekly titles as JEM and DENVER, THE LAST DINOSAUR. (Oh, you don’t remember the last one, either? Well, I was the idiot that thought it could be the next Barney, and let’s just say I got burned on that one),
So kudos to the NFL and their Disney/ESPN partners, who usurped the rights to a London game from NFL Network so as to has something exclusive to tease ESPN+ with, to come up with a uniquely appealing simulcast in the hopes of aggregating audience. Per Bill Desowitz of INDIE WIRE:
Thanks to a first-time collaboration between ESPN, Disney/Pixar, and the NFL — and AI and animated tech — “Toy Story Funday Football” (streaming on Disney+ and ESPN+ at 9:30 a.m. ET) transports the game live from London’s Wembley Stadium to Andy’s room.
That’s where Woody, Buzz, Bo Peep, Bullseye, Bunny, Ducky, Forky, Green Aliens, Jesse, Rex, and Slinky Dog (sans voice talent) watch the animated toy versions of the players compete on a miniature field and react on the sidelines. There’s even a half-time daredevil motorcycle jump by “Toy Story 4” character Duke Caboom.
“Toy Story Funday” is overseen by ESPN’s Creative Studio animation team and supervised by senior director Michael (Spike) Szykowny, who worked with Pixar and Beyond Sports, the Sony-owned Dutch AI visualization company. With the assistance of the NFL’s Next Gen Stats (which captures “real time location data, speed and acceleration for every player” on the field), they will recreate the game with animated avatars using their software and the real-time Unity game engine, which pulls it all together as toys in Andy’s room.
It sounds adorable, and if it sounds a little familiar to hockey fans, it should. As Desowitz continued, ESPN Creative Studio and Beyond Sports previously collaborated in March on the first live animated NHL game telecast with “Big City Greens Classic.” This time, they are leveraging more familiar IP into a more complex environment, with the potential of millions versus hundreds of thousands of fans. And since the NFL and every media outlet now reports total number of viewers PERIOD, how old they are is secondary to whether or not they are actually watching at all.
The NFL has already seen this work with Nickeoldeon, an opportunity afforded to them after internal consolidation better aligned them with CBS . As AD AGE’s Parker Herren penned: The Paramount-owned network has aired occasional kid-focused simulcasts since 2021, featuring animated neon green slime—a Nickelodeon staple—and characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants and his sidekick Patrick Star. The tactic has been used for two Wild Card playoff games already and one holiday special last Christmas. Nickelodeon will broadcast another game on Christmas this year in addition to the 2024 Super Bowl.
And it’s smart business practice all around. As Herren added:
Sarah Bishop, VP of brand and consumer marketing for the NFL, said that 82% of the league’s audience become fans before the age of 18, “so the younger that we can recruit those people in the most relevant way possible, the more it sets us up for success in the long run.” (T)he goal for the NFL’s child-appealing games on Nick and Disney isn’t just about connecting with the networks’ young audiences, which Bishop characterized as ages six to 14. The games are able to reach new audiences in general, including those who are tapped into the nostalgia of franchises such as “Toy Story,” which debuted in 1995 and released its most recent sequel “Toy Story 4” in 2019.
For the company formerly known as Viacom, appealing to kids and parents at the same time was a core component of the “cradle to grave” strategy they employed that made every one of their major networks something they wanted, way more than just MTV. For Disney, which needs some of the juju themselves badly, it’s an opportunity to follow suit. Herren again:
And that aligns ideally with the NFL’s International Series efforts to broaden its global appeal and, of course, its TV audience. It may be dawn in LA and Bloody Mary time in Jacksonville but it’s tea time in London and it’s 5 o’ clock somewhere (or everywhere, if one looks at the commercials that will run on ESPN+).
And on this of all days, there’s even more ample opportunity for the league to benefit from younger fans, especially those who are as obsessed with a certain singer who will be cheering on her–ahem–pal as the Kansas City Chiefs turn Metlife Stadium into a Traylor park with tonight’s Sunday Night Football tilt against the woeful Jets. To a football fan, the game, sans any fantasy interest, is about as appealing as the Falcons-Jaguars tilt is. To a Swiftie, much like NBC used to be, it’s “must-see-TV”.
So between Andy and Taylor, the NFL has covered its bases nicely to give the young ‘uns a reason to want to watch all day, just like their parents often do. Their grandparents, too. And those of us old enough to be them. What do you think people were watching after they got their Sunday morning fix of DENVER, THE LAST DINOSAUR anyway? The Denver Broncos, plus every other NFL, or course.
May we all be watching football when we’re all approaching infinity. And beyond.