TV SportsThe NFL Just Tackled Your KidsEarly Ratings Show the League Gaining Steam With Fans Under 12; the Ray Lewis Dance Contest
By Hannah Karp, Wall Street Journal
- September 23rd, 2010
So far this football season, one number that's getting a lot of attention is the 16% jump in viewership the NFL saw during its opening week. Already a sports ratings behemoth, the league now appears to be running up the score.
But hidden among the data's finer points was another noteworthy development that hasn't gotten much attention: The NFL may be giving SpongeBob a run for the money.
The largest increase in NFL viewership for any age group during the league's first week, according to the Nielsen Company, was a 30% jump among kids under 12. While these kids make up a small fraction of the league's total viewers, they accounted for a healthy 8% of the overall increase.
The news comes at a good time for the NFL, which despite its high profile, has long been the chosen sport of Baby Boomers. Fans over 55 years old made up 30% of the league's total viewers in week one. It also suggests that a recent push by the league to connect to youngsters may be paying off.
The NFL has made other attempts to broaden its appeal over the years. To reach women, the league's teams started hosting seminars called "Football 101" to teach them the rules of the game. But the league says research into fan affinity convinced it to start targeting kids before junior high.
A tracking survey conducted by the league found that 60% of the most avid NFL fans became engaged with the sport during elementary school, while the majority of casual fans, who aren't as freakishly obsessed, got interested in the sport later.
NFL executive Peter O'Reilly, whose job title is "vice president of fan engagement," says the league has put a "major emphasis" on getting kids hooked on the game.
Two years ago, the league launched an online fantasy role-playing game called "Rush Zone" aimed at kids as young as six. The league says it now has two million registered userstwice as many as it had last year.
This fall, the league began airing short cartoons Monday nights on Nicktoons about a 10-year-old San Diego Chargers fan named "Ish" with football-player super powers who must fight evil overlord "Sudden Death" and free the "benevolent life force" trapped in the strongholds of the NFL's 32 stadiums. The NFL says the first episode, which aired Monday before the season's first game and reran throughout the week, drew 1.4 million viewers.
On September 10, more than 16,000 elementary schools across the country participated in an NFL program that offers schools the chance to win one of 35 $10,000 grants and a visit from NFL players. To qualify, the schools had to compete to show the most team pride.
At Frontier Middle School in Buffalo, N.Y. students in Buffalo Bills jerseys showed their love for the hometown team by stampeding someone dressed as a New York Jets fan. At Ogden Elementary school in Wilmington, N.C., students getting off the bus were greeted by Carolina Panthers cheerleaders and the Panthers' mascot, Sir Purr.
At Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a small catholic school outside Baltimore, all 225 students swapped their school uniforms for their favorite NFL jerseysmost of them purple in honor of the hometown Ravensand appeared in a video where they ran screaming off the school bus. The kids participated in a day's worth of NFL-themed lesson plans in everything from spelling to geography, and participated in a contest to see which student could best mimic the famously barbaric and unrestrained dance that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis performs on the field before games.
The surge in viewership among kids could just be a statistical anomalyNielsen says detailed data for week two isn't available yet. It's possible some youngsters tuned in after mistaking New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for teen sensation Justin Bieber, whose haircut the quarterback seems to be emulating.
But when it comes to some of the tougher issues facing the league, from potential labor trouble to the misconduct of some players, the kids seem to be pretty forgiving.
Eight-year-old Philadelphia Eagles fan Noah Johnson, a student at the OLPH School near Baltimore, said he's perplexed as to why fans are still giving Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who served a prison sentence for dogfighting, so much grief. Noah notes that Mr. Vick has already served his "time out" for not treating his animals with respect. As he watched the game Sunday, snacking on popcorn and soda, he told his mother, "people should forgive you."
Jack Cohen, a New York preschooler who's nearly three years old, sides firmly with the leagueand against its critics when it comes to the debate on whether to extend the NFL season. He said he threw a tantrum and cried all night back in February when he was told the NFL season was over. "I threw my body on the floor," recalls Jack, whose parents are Giants fans. "It was sad."
Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was recently named spokesperson for the NFL's 2010 Keep Gym in School initiative. He says he never knows what to say when kids ask him point blank how much money he makes. "That's always a little uncomfortable," he says. "I say, 'Ask your parents.'"
For all the traction the league made with kids, it has shown some preliminary signs of weakness with young people generally. Nielsen's numbers showed that people aged 12 to 17 and young men between 18 and 24 both turned out in smaller numbers for week one.
The NFL says its numbers in 2009 showed growth in viewership among teens. TV ratings analyst Sam Armando of SMGx Strategic Intelligence says MTV's Video Music Awards may have stolen some of the NFL's young-adult fanbase last Sunday.
Larry Gerbrandt, a ratings analyst at Media Valuation Partners in Los Angeles, says even if the trend holds, it won't be so easy to monetize. "Any viewership is helpful for the NFL, but you're not going to start selling more Budweiser."
Baby stuff is another story. Tricia Woodson of Richmond, Va., says business at her company, Baby Fanatic, which sells NFL-themed pacifiers and sippy cups, is booming. "It's never too early to start them on the right track," she said.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000...ArtsEnt_Sports