The National Football League is the undisputed champ of the North American pro sports scene. In fact, each of its 32 franchises are valued in the neighborhood of US$1 billion. So despite an ongoing labor dispute, it’s fair to say the league’s long-term viability is secure. To build on this momentum, the NFL is endeavoring to extend the brand into the kids arena, and finding the right toy and videogame partners might just help it make the move.
“We have made a concerted effort to focus on our young fans in a way that doesn’t just dumb-down the NFL,” says Peter O’Reilly, VP of marketing and fan strategy. “We want younger fans to have contact with the league in a customized way in the places where they are spending time already.”
To that end, the league developed the concept of NFL Rush Zone in 2007. What began as a virtual world and web portal has evolved into a 22-episode animated series called NFL RushZone: Guardians of the Core. The show bowed on NickToons US last September, timed to coincide with the league’s 2010 season kick-off, and culminated with a 75-minute movie broadcast during SuperBowl weekend in February.
The series, aimed at a broad six to 13 demographic, was promoted using the NFL’s many marketing venues, including in-stadium ads and previews during live events. A special screening of the movie was also part of its Super Bowl NFL Experience, the league’s temporary theme park set up in Dallas, Texas during Super Bowl 2011.
The narrative of the series focuses on young hero Ish, who must recover 32 shards of a power source called “The Core” that has been divided among the stadiums that host the NFL franchises. The trick is, Ish needs to find the shards before the villainous Sudden Death and his evil sidekick Blitz Bots get to them. The toon mines the iconic NFL team IP with a twist to make the brands relatable to the target audience.
“When we started building the bible, it was important to work with all 32 teams and make sure that we nailed the essence of their brands and could still make them come alive for kids,” O’Reilly says. For example, the Pittsburgh Steelers are represented by a character that embodies the hard-nosed, blue-collar attitude that has come to define the sports franchise. And with a successful series in the can and talks for a second season ongoing, the NFL saw fit to travel to New York Toy Fair in February. With a roster of licensees including Hallmark, Crayola, Classic Balloons and Rawlings currently gearing up to put their NFL kids wares on major retail shelves this fall, the org is now working on scoring other category partners.
“We are looking for the right set of partners,” says O’Reilly. “We are being pretty methodical. There is a lot of collectibility with the series that we think will work well for toys. And we also see it working really well for handheld and console games.”
O’Reilly says the company has made Rush Zone a high priority and will be utilizing its extensive marketing and promotional capacity to build it out. “For us, we already had youth viewership, but this is a space you wouldn’t necessarily expect the NFL to be in,” says O’Reilly. “It’s a unique opportunity.”