There’s a special kind of magic with which children see the world — the kind of magic that we need to capture more of as adults.
On Sunday afternoon, Nickelodeon hosted a special broadcast of the Saints vs. Bears Wild Card game geared toward kids. Animations, beloved cartoon characters and young hosts made the broadcast particularly unique, but not even the iconic network could avoid the occasional slip-up.
There were plenty of cringe-worthy moments that gave the Internet an absolute field day: an accidental hot-mic F-bomb surely made certain family viewing parties awkward, the number of TikTok references made overwhelmed the number of points scored by the Bears and Mitchell Trubisky won the Nickelodeon Valuable Player award despite a subpar performance and ultimately leading the Bears to a loss. Chicago wide receiver Javon Wims dropped a dime of a would-be touchdown pass, and although that had nothing to do with Nickelodeon, it definitely made people wince.
But despite the multitude of memes Twitter produced during and after the game, Nickelodeon’s broadcast was an innovative, fresh way to make football more approachable and fun for people of all ages.
The adult commentators, Noah Eagle and Nate Burleson, did a fantastic job of maintaining professionalism while inventing helpful analogies to make things more clear to the audience. Lex Lumpkin, Nickelodeon’s 14-year-old sideline reporter, absolutely killed both his interviews and his Obama impression. Fellow network star Gabrielle Nevaeh Green acted about twice the ripe young age of 15 with a certain savvy as an announcer that few could pull off at her age. The animations were creative, educational and endlessly entertaining, and the broadcast maintained a healthy balance of kid-friendly and playoff-football-surly.
The broadcast’s biggest success that differentiates it from other telecasts, however, is that it addressed head-on the gatekeeping that bars people from enjoying football.
The commentators took time to explain the rules of football, something that people who aren’t given the chance to play it, such as most girls, might never have the opportunity to learn. Previous broadcasts with child announcers, such as the 2019 Little League World Series “Kidscast,” certainly have merit in that they show young sports fans that there is a place for people like them up the ranks of their sport. But what Nickelodeon did is show everyone — from girls to children to even adults who may have never found an interest in football — that they too belong in the world of athletics.
Gatekeeping prevents a large portion of the population from enjoying football, whether from a lack of prior knowledge or the exclusive nature of the game. It’s historically been a place where those whose wallets depend on a knowledge of every NFL team’s depth chart for hitting parlay dominate watch party conversations, where people who play and know the intricacies of the sport have thrived and where everyone on the fringe of fandom is made to feel unwelcome.
Nickelodeon’s broadcast was influential because it made a space for every type of audience member — the novice, the casual follower, the superfan, the kid, the adult, the boy and the girl. It was far more than just an alternative broadcast because it showed people across the nation that you don’t have to dedicate entire days to perfecting your fantasy roster or know arbitrary statistics to enjoy football.
What was especially impressive about Nickelodeon’s approach to its educational telecast was that it kept the lighthearted and profoundly pleasing outlook the channel is known for. The NFL players who shared their favorite Nickelodeon cartoons or got to talk with Lex seemed to enjoy the nostalgia, and Saints head coach Sean Payton was a great sport for getting a notorious network “slime” after New Orleans’ victory.
To see players, coaches, announcers and fans have fun with playoff football — something often treated so seriously in American culture — was completely refreshing. Although broadcasts such as these are unlikely to become the norm on Sundays, Nickelodeon reminded us that sports don’t always have to be quite so intense.
Airing more broadcasts like Nickelodeon’s would encourage young sports fans to invest in the game, which would likely increase engagement among girls and kids who think sports aren’t for them. If we could get everyone in the country as excited about football as Green was about punts, we might have a more inclusive and accepting sports community for ourselves and future generations to enjoy.