Nickelodeon Says It’s Growing Audience by Adding Sports to the Mix

Programming block also opened a door for a new set of advertisers

It's been four months since kid-focused cable network Nickelodeon took the leap of dedicating a 2-hour prime-time block to sports programming. So how is it working out?

Pretty well, say the numbers. Since its September debut, NickSports has grown the Wednesday block by 15 percent with boys ages 6 to 11 and 19 percent with kids (girls and boys combined) in the same age group. "We are hitting all the touch points everyone wants to be involved in," says Keith Dawkins, svp and general manager for Nicktoons, TeenNick and NickJr.

Michael Strahan hosted 2014's Kids' Choice Sports Awards, drawing 2.7 million viewers.

The idea for the programming block, airing from 9 to 11 p.m. ET,  came about relatively quickly. After the first-ever Kids' Choice Sports Awards hosted by NFL Hall of Famer Michael Strahan this past summer drew impressive ratings, Dawkins realized that regular, dedicated sports programming could do well with his demographic. 

"Our research shows sports gets big ratings in every quadrant. Add the participation rate of boys and girls in youth sports, and it all adds up to the right time to do more in sports," Dawkins said.

As powerful as many sports leagues are these days, they still turned out to be an easy enough sell for Dawkins' proposal. "The leagues are used to getting big numbers on their own, but we are a place that gives them an entry to kids and families," Dawkins said. 

The NFL, NASCAR, Major League Soccer and the WWE have all signed on. And for the NFL, the biggest fish of all, it was an easy decision. "We are always looking for ways to create lifelong fans and to connect with kids in unique ways," said NFL marketing and sales vp Jaime Weston said. 

For a league dealing very publicly with some serious offseason concerns—Baltimore Ravens' running back Ray Rice's domestic violence issues and Minnesota Vikings' star Adrian Peterson's child-abuse case, to name the two highest-profile issues—partnering with Nickelodeon offered a positive counterpoint to much of the public discussion. It's also helped Nickelodeon seem like an attractive place for advertisers looking for options beyond gameday ads.

Dawkins believes that the best parts of the sports industry also align well with his network's strengths. "Nickelodeon has always been a place and space of creating iconic characters, such as SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer, that people have a deep affinity for," Dawkins said. "The sports world too has its characters, and they end up creating lifelong Lakers, Cowboys and Yankee fans."

It just so happens that such character-driven content also turns out to be the best antidote to all those digital devices that kids often prefer these days over television. "Sports has a stickiness that sets it apart," Dawkins said.