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NFL seeks young fans through football fiction series

Appealing to younger fans is becoming increasingly difficult for sports leagues. Due to the ever-increasing presence of computer games, specialty channels and after-school activities, most leagues these days are scrambling to keep a kid fan base alive....
September 1, 1999

Appealing to younger fans is becoming increasingly difficult for sports leagues. Due to the ever-increasing presence of computer games, specialty channels and after-school activities, most leagues these days are scrambling to keep a kid fan base alive.

In an attempt to up its youth-oriented programming, the NFL is currently in production on several kid-targeted screen projects. The goal of the new NFL-based kids programming is to do something different to attract viewers, says Chris Widmaier, director of corporate communications for the football league.

Following in the footsteps of NBA’s Inside Stuff, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, the NFL’s offering will be teen-targeted Under the Helmet, a 26-episode mix of both live NFL action and behind-the-scenes moments. Debuting September 11, the magazine-style show will feature appearances by current musicians and actors as the NFL has signed agreements with Universal Music and EMI Publishing. Under the Helmet will be hosted by former Pittsburgh Steeler Ron Pitts and an as-yet-unnamed female host. Aimed at the 12 to 17 crowd, the series will air on Fox Network after the Fox Kids Block in the noon to 12:30 p.m. slot.

Widmaier claims the series is not being introduced because the numbers of young fans are decreasing, however, he admits: ‘Obviously, we’re aware of how competitive it is to reach that audience.’

Another series in the works for the NFL with the Disney Channel is a live-action, half-hour series called The Jersey, being co-produced by Lynch Entertainment.

The 13-episode series, aimed at kids ages six to 12, is about a gaggle of kids who find a football jersey that contains magical powers. Once the jersey is donned, one of the kids is transformed into his favorite NFL star. ‘It’s an opportunity to present the game in a different way, and the players in a fun way,’ says Widmaier. The series is based on a TV movie called The Magic Jersey, which aired last year on Fox.

A made-for-TV family flick is also in the works with CBS, for broadcast in January 2000. Although a script has not yet been worked out, Widmaier says the story line for the as-yet-unnamed MOW will feature an NFL player who heads back to his home-town high school to coach football. On the toon front, the league is partnering with Nelvana to create animated series for Saturday morning viewers.

The NBA is continuing its efforts to attract a younger fan base through entertainment-based basketball programming, says Gregg Winik, senior VP of programming for NBA Entertainment. ‘The NBA does look to attract [the younger] fan base because they are the ticket buyers of the future, and the game players of the future.’ Although the NBA wants to attract kids as young as six or seven, he believes most wouldn’t want to watch the game itself. That’s why children’s entertainment is being created around the game, and especially, around the players as role models.

The NBA is currently talking about partnering with the WNBA to produce instructional basketball videos for kids, and a full-length IMAX feature, in co-production with NBA Entertainment, is set for a May 2000 release. Plans are underway for the relaunch of The Inside Stuff in time for its 10th anniversary, and Winik says the next entertainment genre for NBA Entertainment to tap is animation.

Realizing the potential for a kids sports programming niche, Nickelodeon launched the Games and Sports Network in March in order to ‘serve an underserved market,’ says Mark Offitzer, the sports net’s GM. GAS and Nick have partnered with the NBA, Major League Soccer, and MLB to produce programs, interstitials and specials. Sports-related children’s programs on GAS include Sports Theater with Shaquille O’Neal and Play of the Week reports provided by Major League Soccer.

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