Why Slime Time worked in NFL prime time on Nickelodeon
Nate Burleson didn’t waste a moment. Upon learning Nickelodeon had chosen him to be the color analyst for the network’s debut broadcast of an NFL game, the former receiver turned to his unofficial advisors: his two teenaged sons, and his 10-year-old daughter.
“I knew old shows on Nickelodeon, but I didn’t want to be Mr. Retro,” said Burleson, 39, an NFL receiver for 13 seasons. “I asked them, ‘What are the newest ones? What are they coming out with in 2021? What are the characters that really stand out to you guys?’”
Young Mia Pearl set him straight.
“My daughter’s like, ‘Alright, here’s the situation: In the Loud family, there’s 11 kids, and Lincoln Loud’s the only boy. And it’s all chaos,’” Burleson said. “Then my son jumps in and says, ‘Yeah, but all the girls are different, and that’s what makes the house so crazy because he’s always caught in the middle of everything.’
“And I’m thinking the quarterback can be Lincoln Loud, and there’s 11 kids, so that also means that the other 10 players on the field are all different, and that’s how they make it work. OK, cool.”
That’s a peek into some of the film study Burleson did for Sunday’s playoff game between Chicago and New Orleans, an innovative and delightfully goofy departure for the traditionally buttoned-down NFL, which only a few years ago didn’t as much as allow end-zone celebrations.
The weather could play a factor for the Rams when they travel to Lambeau Field this Saturday for their NFC divisional-round game against the Green Bay Packers.
“The idea was to captivate and cultivate a new fan base, younger people who might not otherwise watch the game,” said play-by-play announcer Noah Eagle, 24, the Clippers radio broadcaster whose father, Ian, calls NFL games for CBS. “We wanted to explain enough so that those people, those kids watching their first football game, could have at least a general understanding of what was happening.”
At least judging by the reaction on social media, it was a smashing success. The game, which was broadcast by CBS, attracted roughly 30-million viewers, with about two million of those tuned into the kids’ network.
“I’ve done games before, and some people love you and some people hate you,” said Burleson, who co-hosts “Good Morning Football” on NFL Network. “But I’ve never seen such an overwhelming response to a broadcast like I did after this one. It was humbling. I felt so thankful and blessed to be a part of it.”
The virtual graphics for Sunday’s game included slime cannons showering the end zone with green goop after a touchdown, neon down-and-distance graphics, a giant Sponge Bob between the uprights on field-goal attempts, and a Bikini Bottom-themed first-down line. The replays were spiced up with smoke, fire and explosions, thanks to a team of animators at network headquarters in New York who augmented the footage then sent it back at lightning speed.
A graphic of Young Sheldon would pop up to explain a penalty, Saints running back Alvin Kamara was compared to Alvin of the Chipmunks, and Chicago quarterback Mitch Trubisky was likened to the aforementioned Lincoln Loud.
In the Superdome stands were cardboard cutouts of 24 Nickelodeon characters, including Sponge Bob, Dora the Explorer and the Ninja Turtles. The broadcast team included teenaged Nickelodeon stars Gabrielle Nevaeh Green and Lex Lumpkin.
“We could humanize the players more than in a normal broadcast, talking about their favorite ice cream flavor, or the fact that [Bears tight end] Jimmy Graham is afraid of heights,” said Eagle. “Things like that you don’t necessarily hear when it’s third-and-four midway through the third quarter of a one-score game.”
Burleson, always ready with the apt analogy or explanation, was the star of the show. He wasn’t condescending or patronizing, but described situations in ways everyone could understand.
“I was trying to put myself in a kid’s shoes when I was watching the game,” he said. “I was asking questions that a 10-year-old might ask, and I was just thinking to myself: ‘What if a kid is confused about why they’re marching down the field? And how hard is it to score once you get closer?’
“I said, ‘Imagine getting a first down is like little homework assignments, and then once you get close to the end zone, that’s your test. The homework assignments, they’re hard. But they’re not as hard as scoring. If you score a touchdown, that’s getting an A on a test.’”
He recounted the arc of Trubisky’s season and how he was benched.
Said Burleson: “I said, ‘By benched, I don’t mean the guy is sitting on the bench on the sideline. Put it like this, being benched by the NFL is like being grounded. When you’re grounded, you have to clean up your room, make sure you do all your homework, do the dishes and the chores around the house. It’s the same thing in the NFL. You’re benched, and then you have to prove to your coach — kind of your parent — that you’re ready to go outside.”
Eagle picked up on that thread, saying that because the Bears weren’t ready to let Trubisky stray from the conservative game plan, he wasn’t necessarily grounded anymore but couldn’t leave the yard, either.
“Nate was as perfect a choice for a main analyst that they could have had,” Eagle said. “He has a knack. He’s really smart, and explained everything in perfect terms. He had a comparison for every situation. The biggest thing was that us having fun just came through the screen.”
Both Eagle and Burleson said they spent hours after the game reading texts and tweets. One message in particular, from a Hall of Fame quarterback, was most meaningful to Burleson.
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“Kurt Warner texted me right after the game,” he said. “I’m paraphrasing but he said, ‘My son, who had been in a traumatic accident, we had never watched a game together. But for the first time in his life, I was able to sit down and watch a game with him because he loves Nickelodeon.’ That was a special text for me.”
New Orleans won the game, and the Nickelodeon crew had pretty much packed up its gear when the cell phone of producer Ken Mack buzzed.
“We were heading to our cars when Ken got a call from Saints public relations,” coordinating producer Shawn Robbins said. “We thought we might have kept Cam Jordan too long for our interview. And Saints PR said, ‘Hey, where are you guys? Coach needs to get slimed. We’ve got to do this right now.’
“Our talent is gone. Our slime is packed up. We scramble and get our slime, and coach [Sean Payton] says, ‘You guys can’t get out of here. I’m going to get killed on the internet unless I get slimed right now.’”
So on camera, in front of the Saints’ locker room, Nickelodeon dumped a bucket of green goo all over the head of a crouching Payton. A messy ending to a perfect day.
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