Disney is passing the puck to an unlikely player in a bid to pair some of its younger viewers with live sports TV.
On March 14 at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN will make available a live telecast of a match between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers on the Disney Channel and Disney XD cable outlets as well as the Disney+ streaming service — and kids might just see it as another fun program. That’s because the game, the “NHL Big City Greens Classic,” will be animated and feature a few characters from the popular cartoon series “Big City Greens.” A more traditional version of the game will be available on ESPN and ESPN+.
“Disney Channel and DIsney XD fans are, on average, 30 years younger than the ESPN audience”, Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming and acquisitions, tells Variety. “Naturally, we ought to make things a little different to capture their attention.”
“Big City Greens” characters will be seen skating alongside animated versions of the actual NHL players. And while the whole scene might look like a cartoon, the action will follow that of the live contest, thanks to the use of the NHL’s own technology that maps the movements of players and the game puck. Younger viewers will see a scene that looks as if “players have been transported into their world,” says Ben-Hanan. ”The ice rink will look like the world of ‘Big City Greens,’ and so will even some of the stores in the background.”
The NHL’s venture to networks better known for series like “Bunk’d” or “Grossology” is part of a broader bid at Disney to take ESPN’s live sports coverage beyond its immediate pockets of fandom and get it in front of kids and families. In recent years, ESPN has enlisted young announcers for its annual Little League World Series coverage and even transformed a 2021 NBA game between the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans into a battle royale involving Marvel superheroes. Others have tested these waters as well, including Paramount Global’s Nickelodeon, which has gained some traction for NFL games that feature a bespoke group of announcers, animated overlays and plenty of the network’s signature green slime.
The mission isn’t kid stuff. “Maybe a decade ago, the primary means of fan consumption was by attending the game or watching it on TV,” David Lehanski, the NHL’s senior vice president of business development and global partnerships, tells Variety. Now, he says, the sports leagues and the networks that work with them are pumping out all kinds of sports content — clips, highlights, commentary and more — to an array of digital platforms. “What our research is showing us is that there are going to be a lot of people, especially young people, who may have their first engagement with our fans or players that will be out of the live game experience — not by attending a game and not by watching a linear channel.”
Sports is one of the few genres that still commands mass simultaneous consumption, but the networks continue to seek audience growth — in part to generate new revenue after signing pacts with massive rights fees attached. ESPN has worked to create a series of bespoke sportscasts, including one that has Peyton and Eli Manning talking about “Monday Night Football” in a very informal setting on ESPN2 while the regular “MNF” hosts hold forth on the flagship network.
Disney and ESPN won a new NHL rights package in 2021, nabbing hours of the sport that were previously shown by NBCUniversal. To win the deal, ESPN executives told the league that “this was not an ESPN deal, but a Walt Disney deal,” says Ben-Hanan. “We really wanted to inject the NHL into the overall Disney family.”
Doing so requires a marriage of NHL data and Disney storytelling. ESPN will make use of NHL Edge, a system of cameras and sensors that tracks the movement of players and pucks in all 30+ NHL venues, collecting data on positioning, movement, speed and more. The “Big City Greens” characters will be able to skate alongside the animated versions of the hockey players. ESPN commentators will call the action for some “Big City Greens” talent, including the series’ creators, Shane and Chris Houghton. Marieve Herington, who voices the character “Tilly,” will also be featured.
“Animation is a team sport, just like hockey, and it has taken a massive group of hard-working and passionate people to put this together,” the Houghton brothers said in a statement. “We could not be more excited to throw the perpetually out-of-place Green family onto the rink with real professional players.”
The NHL expects to learn from the event. In an era when fans have dozens of different ways to watch their favorite sport, “do we just take a game as it is and stick that there, or does it need to look different than it is?” asks Lehanski. “This is still the game. It’s a real game. It’s the real event, all the sounds and the sights, but it’s going to look different and have these different elements that will resonate with the younger audience.”
The executive believes the data from the sensors could also give rise to game versions that would fit on Roblox or Minecraft or be presented to people interested in betting and odds-making. Clearly, some of those things aren’t for kids.