Meet The Man Behind the “Sticky” Content Keeping Sports Relevant for Kids

Nickelodeon and Sports: How the Duo Turns Kids into Lifelong Fans

10,000 years ago (actually seven or eight, but we’re talking media years here), I took a meeting with the folks at the NFL. It was a long meeting, but the message was clear: the league was, and is, dedicated to a youth fan strategy with the goal of creating lifelong fans out of kids.

It makes sense. I jumped on the Tony Dorsett bandwagon as a kid and it made me a Dallas Cowboys lifer. I did the same with Magic Johnson… which is how I became a Lakers fan.

At the time, our audience for Nicktoons, while always geared towards kids 6–11, had a 70% skew toward boys…making it a great place for sports. We knew as a network we needed to supplement our program offerings with content from other providers that was also naturally attractive to our audience. The NFL turned out to be an obvious and organic fit.

Our first effort to combine Nickelodeon and sports was NFL Rush Zone, the NFL’s digital destination where kids could create an avatar and navigate through an animated world. We used the underlying IP and partnered with a production company to turn the digital concept into a short-form animated series, and ultimately launched a long-form animated series on our linear network. It was a win-win all around.

A picture of Nickelodeon and sports through NFL Rush Zone game

At the same time, Rob Dyrdek (Rob & Big, Fantasy Factory and Ridiculousness) pitched us the idea of doing an animated version of his life growing up with his skateboarding friends. From that pitch, Wild Grinders was born.

NFL Rush Zone, Wild Grinders and our long prosocial history with professional sports leagues formed the foundation of Nickelodeon and sports path to dynamic duo.

We then asked ourselves: can we take this other places?

Yes, and that we did. Fast forward 10,000 media years to today, and here’s what our sports content partnerships look like:

  • We launched Kids’ Choice Sports, the only show that celebrates kids and families’ love of sports and top professional athletes, now in its fourth year.
  • Nickelodeon is a perennial partner with the NFL, activating in unique ways at the NFL Experience during Super Bowl Week.
  • This year’s Superstar Slime Showdown, shot during Super Bowl 51 in Houston, featuring the likes of Drew Brees, DeMarcus Ware, Victor Cruz, LaDainian Tomlinson and hosted by Nick Cannon was #1 across all our platforms on Super Bowl Sunday.
  • NickSports — our dedicated programming block on Nicktoons — is celebrating three years of growth.
  • Over the past three years, we’ve purchased the naming rights to a NASCAR race annually (SpongeBob 400 and TMNT 400 in Chicago).
  • We partnered with the PGA Tour to activate NickSports at THE PLAYERS Championship Golf Rocks Weekend, an on-the-ground and linear initiative.
  • We sourced a variety of content over the years from league partners including WWE, NASCAR, NFL, PGA and MLS, as well as individual content creators.
  • And the list of athletes that we’ve worked with is LONG.

We’ve come a long way, but what hasn’t changed is our mission to strategically use the sports world as a way to stay relevant with our audience.

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To do so, we leverage the multi-generational influence of athletes who can help us create content that is both relevant and sticky.

A few examples?

When Nick slimed Bubba Watson, we partnered with the PGA Tour to make sure it could be consumed as widely as possible. Whether they came through our owned channels, the PGA Tour’s or were earned via Bubba’s own large following, the consumption was tremendous. The impact of these moments is seismic.

Chad Johnson laying on couch

Another? All it took was Chad Ochocinco lying down on our Orange Couch at Super Bowl 51 to become a GIF that sticks. We’re talking over 45 million views. I’m not even sure how many kids in our target demo still know him, but athletes have an unmatched ability to amplify.

At Nickelodeon, we’re very strategic with sports, but we’re also a little bit lucky. Athletes love playing in Nick’s world. Most of them were Nick kids themselves, and many have kids who engage with our content.

For example, Super Bowl champion Martellus Bennett visited the Nickelodeon Animation Studio to do some voiceover work on SpongeBob SquarePants… and he literally became the voice of SpongeBob. I mean it’s a Nick kid’s dream!

We don’t ask about how they’re playing or what’s up with their contract, so they’re comfortable having fun with us. The work that we’ve been doing over the last few years in the sports space has opened up business conversations with brands that haven’t traditionally targeted our young audience and we hope to turn the corner with advertisers not endemic in our kids space.

I’m confident that the right content, story, proof of concept and maybe a little slime will bring those folks around.

Keith Dawkins was the tie between Nickelodeon and sports for over a decade. He served as Executive Vice President of TeenNick and Nicktoons where he oversaw NickSports, a primetime programming block for sports fans that features original and acquired long- and short-form content from professional sports athletes and leagues. He is now CEO of The First Tee, a nonprofit youth development organization founded by the PGA.