The NFL has an aging audience and has been looking at different ways to attract new and younger fans to the game. Through great creativity and luck, the NFL may have found some answers on the back of success with its animated game broadcast from a recent London game and the power of celebrity affiliation through Taylor Swift. 

One of the most impressive attempts to engage with new audiences came during the live coverage of the London series game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons in early October.

Alongside its typical game coverage on ESPN, the broadcaster also aired a different viewership experience for fans, as ESPN (Disney) and the NFL showed a fully animated production live from ‘Andy’s bedroom’ where viewers and players were thrust into the world of the hit movie franchise Toy Story.

All players were transformed into animated Disney Pixar versions of themselves, playing in new surroundings which included many of the main characters from the movie itself. Despite a few glitches in the streaming, the coverage pulled viewers in and offered a glimpse into the future direction of how consumers may engage with live sports.

The coverage utilized the continued evolution of technology, combining tracking chips on the ball and player uniforms with hawk-eye motion sense technology (similar to what has been seen in tennis for years) to provide a real-time picture of events in London.

Among the biggest initiatives for almost all businesses in 2023 has been strategizing about how to better incorporate technology into its operations, particularly around the enhanced excitement of artificial intelligence (AI). The broadcast from the Jaguars-Falcons game illustrates how the NFL is no different, with technology implementation clearly at the forefront of future projects.

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Given its successful reception, and strong depth of partnerships with the likes of AWS (for ball tracking data) and ESPN (with an extensive collection of animated technology and popular movies), the Toy Story narrative could just be the start of the journey.

This type of broadcast holds no limits because of these partnerships which could feasibly mean we see the likes of Patrick Mahomes or Christian McCaffrey playing in a new venue every week, represented in different forms such as that of the characters from Star Wars, the Simpsons, or Frozen, as just a few examples.

There has been a real insurgence of excitement around available and affordable technology in recent months thanks to the announcements by the likes of Meta and Apple which will soon sell new headsets and products to the public that are capable of utilizing things such as AI Chatbots.

Live animated broadcasts certainly seem like the start of what sport is capable of, with more likely to come in areas of augmented reality and virtual reality in stadiums to enhance fan experiences and create greater personalized content. Chatbots could also be used to offer easier lines of communication between fans and the team/players.

Away from the excitement of how integrating new technology into the sport is exciting for the typical fan, the animated broadcast also highlights where the NFL is looking to appeal to younger audiences.

It seemed the perfect opportunity to implement this new broadcast because of the time difference from London, whereby fans were engaging with the game from 9.30am Eastern Time.

Whilst this is not the optimal time for sports viewership among mainstream fans, it is for targeting children and families – those who are almost certainly going to engage better with the sport considering the Toy Story setting.

The content production went all in on offering an authentic experience for these new audiences, whilst maintaining the feel of a usual competitive game of football.

Such initiatives here included an animated half-time daredevil stunt from ‘Duke Caboom’ (one of the minor characters from Toy Story 4), feeding into the hype and excitement of half-time entertainment typically seen at the Super Bowl and across the NFL.

Understanding the audience they were looking to reach, the broadcast also worked closely with sponsors such as Allstate, which instead of airing a standard commercial, bought into the narrative being told, and used its allotted airtime to run animated football-themed trivia questions. 

It is also worth noting that this initiative does not mark the first attempt of US sports to engage younger audiences in this way. In March 2023, the NHL broadcast its own animated coverage of a game between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers in the setting of the animated series ‘Big City Greens’.

In recent seasons, the NFL has also broadcast its slime-covered Super Bowl content, awash with popular characters from the SpongeBob SquarePants series. The NFL has evidently been targeting younger audiences for a few years as it looks to future-proof the popular longevity of its sports content.

The NFL’s other newfound success story around new fan engagement surrounds the ongoing rumored relationship between Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and the most-streamed female artist of all time on Spotify, Taylor Swift.

The country-pop music star has been in attendance at several Chiefs games, and in doing so has engaged a whole new audience of (predominantly) young female ‘Swifties’ to the sport.

It has become somewhat of a popular phenomenon, with (seemingly) dedicated cameras following her reactions during the games, and the emergence of a popular trend on TikTok, which has seen ‘Swifties’ prank their partners by claiming how “Swift has put Kelce on the map.”

The NFL itself has claimed that viewership of the recent Chiefs-Bears game saw a 63% uplift in the 18-49 female demographic.

Travis Kelce has also seen a spike in his online Instagram popularity, jumping some 30.15% during a week at the end of September from 2.95 million to 3.84 million.

Although it was not a targeted approach to engage with new audiences, the NFL has stumbled onto something that aids its expansion efforts and has attempted to exploit its success. 

Image: Jamie Squire/Getty Images