I left ESPN and Disney’s Toy Story broadcast of the Sunday morning Jaguars-Falcons game on our living room set and waited. By now, my two young kids are accustomed to Sundays being a day in which their least favorite show (football) is on for the entire day and their favorite show (Paw Patrol) is “not on right now.” We are in a blessed space of time in which they do not quite grasp the nuances of “on demand.”
I did not want to sell this to them as some kind of event. I was more curious to see whether the NFL and Disney’s venture could somehow organically and holistically capture their attention and reach their ultimate goal of finding different ways to get families to watch football together. Apparently, Arthur Smith’s mustache just isn’t enough on its own.
So, there was the boy, coming in from the backyard and wandering off to some other mess-making activity when he glanced upward, looked at the TV and looked at me.
“Is that Buh-Buh Lightyear?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“I’m going to go back outside,” he said.
Before we get into why I was as thrilled as I could possibly be, let me place a disclaimer here. This is not a piece of judgment about screen time and young children. I have been to the bottom of enough Instagram post comment sections to know that I don’t want any of that smoke. I think people should do what is right for their own families. I would imagine we are on the “cautious but realistic” end of the spectrum when it comes to the average household, for full disclosure. We also just lived through a pandemic in which all of our digital rules were rewritten without our consent. We all need to give ourselves a break.
I also don’t want to denigrate the quality of the project or the idea itself. Technologically, I thought the broadcast was amazing. To have digital characters mimicking the movements of a live event essentially in a Toy Story costume in real time was beyond what I thought was possible.
But I do think this themed broadcast was a departure from the Nickelodeon broadcast that I liked and wrote about a few years back. While it’s hard to put a finger on why, having a kind of video gamification of football and placing it in a total, nonhuman, digitized format for the purposes of young children’s consumption felt a bit predatory. Explaining the game with kids and for kids is one thing. Basically showing them a Toy Story video game is another.
It’s no secret we are all going to be a part of some fantasy football conglomerate one day (if we’re lucky) and that gambling, as it pertains to football, is going to float the boat. Having an entire setup designed as a sort of “entry” video game, one that I could easily see being a multishow vehicle one day for different, familiar characters showing you the progress of an offense moving down the field, is like giving a kid the nougat center of football without the actual beauty of what makes it such a perfect sport to bond around.
Focusing on points and scoring and flashing lights and cartoon characters is a step removed from the truth, that this is a very human activity that has been beloved for generations. It is a game that we all played, at least in some form, and because we played it, we can marvel at those who do so at such a high level. We can talk about the people. We can watch their tongue stick out when they throw a football. We can watch their eyes close when they’re walloped in the stomach by a defensive lineman.
Without that recognition, are we teaching our kids to become a version of who we’re all fixing to become? Detached, fantasy football consumers addicted to points and trades and asset valuation, free and emboldened to curse out some running back on Twitter who fumbled away your matchup against DolphinsButt52?
The more that football caters to every ancillary money-making opportunity outside of actual football, the more we lose touch with the real reasons families started watching and loving football together in the first place. We went to real games together. Even if they hated it, we plopped our kids on our laps and said, These here are the Cowboys, and they are the bad guys. Or, This here is Patrick Mahomes; he’s a little like Superman.
Toy Story football is not the end of the world, but it’s a step away from the ways in which I think we should be fostering the kind of family-football dynamic that has already existed in this country for decades. That wasn’t broken. We didn’t need to fix it.
On that note, I, too, am headed outside.