How Nickelodeon, CBS Sports Plan to 'Nick-ify' an NFL Playoff Game

Sean McManus and Brian Robbins
Taylor Hill/FilmMagic; Charley Gallay/KCA2019/Getty Images

Sean McManus and Brian Robbins

SpongeBob SquarePants will not be calling the NFL wild card game that's set to air on Nickelodeon on Jan. 10. The cable network's longest-running animated star will, however, have a presence during the kid-focused cable network's telecast, which will air alongside CBS' traditional coverage.

The game will feature Nick-inspired graphics — including animated slime in replays of big moments — a SpongeBob-inspired pregame show and Nickelodeon stars Gabrielle Nevaeh Green and Lex Lumpkin (All That) involved in the broadcast — with Green becoming the first woman in the broadcast booth for an NFL playoff game produced by CBS Sports.

The NFL playoffs will expand from 10 to 14 teams this season, meaning two extra games in the wild card round. CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told The Hollywood Reporter that his division wanted to make CBS' pitch for one of the extra games stand out, so CBS Sports teamed up with Nickelodeon. (ESPN is doing something similar with its wild card telecast, offering traditional coverage on ESPN and ABC and alternate feeds and announcing teams on both ESPN2 and Disney's young- and female-skewing cable network Freeform.)

"One of the things we've been telling the NFL is that we are able to reach a broader and more diverse audience now that we're one with Viacom. It's not just the CBS television network anymore, it's all the platforms that come with Viacom," McManus said. "We pitched the idea, and they loved the idea immediately. I think it was a factor in us being able to acquire the game."

Noah Eagle and Nate Burleson will call the game action and will be joined by Green on commentary. Lumpkin will have a role reporting from the sideline — "not a typical sideline role, but he'll lead and tag some fun packages" during the game, coordinating producer Shawn Robbins told THR.

Game action will be called straight, although Eagle and Burleson may do a little more explaining of play calls and rules than they would on a traditional broadcast. Green is there to "be herself," Robbins said: "I'm sure she's a fan and will be a fan in the booth, and if she has questions, we'll answer them."

Replays and the moments coming into and out of commercials will get a Nickelodeon spin, with extra on-screen animation and other enhancements. (Watch a preview below.)

"As plays are happening, they come into the truck and we're then selecting what we want to 'Nick-ify,' is the word we've been using a lot," said Robbins. "So we'll decide what plays we want to Nick-ify. We send them to the Nickelodeon animators in New York. They then send them back to us. It's happening within minutes. So something that may happen early in a series could come back and be on your screen in a bumper to commercial."

ViacomCBS Kids & Family Entertainment president Brian Robbins said for Nickelodeon, an NFL game represents a chance to bring some new viewers, and a lot of kids and parents watching together.

"I think the way we're going about it, which is offering our sensibility up along with the game, should pique the curiosity of kids and families to show up and watch the broadcast that they might not otherwise do," said Brian Robbins (no relation to Shawn). "We have a great pregame show on tap, a whole SpongeBob highlight show, we have a sneak peek at halftime of our new SpongeBob spinoff [Kamp Koral]. So there will be a lot of surprises and cool stuff for the fans."

McManus said the team working the Nickelodeon game did a rehearsal during CBS' coverage of the Green Bay Packers-Philadelphia Eagles game on Dec. 6, "and it looked terrific. It's really forward thinking, really innovative. We're trying to talk about the benefits and strategic plans for the new ViacomCBS, and this is right in that wheelhouse."

Brian Robbins also thinks the producing team will walk a line between drawing in Nick's core audience and satisfying older football fans.

"I think we're paying the utmost respect to the game, first and foremost. We don't want to intrude on that experience," he told THR. "But I can tell you as the father of a 6-year-old girl who's been riding shotgun with me on this whole process, checking out all the graphics and all the plans, she's so excited. I know it's going to be really fun to have her next to me to watch this game together."

Below is a sizzle reel of some of the "Nick-ified" replays and other enhancements CBS and Nickelodeon will feature.