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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Your favorite TV sitcom or reality show has nothing on football. Football is the biggest thing on television. Last Sunday - and this is pretty typical - the shows that came in second place had just half the ratings of the NFL games. And that large audience includes the demographic coveted by advertisers: young men. The National Football League could coast nicely on its colossal audience. But as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the league is now putting its muscle into getting more children to watch.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: When the NFL wants to make a play for a particular demographic, they go long. To attract Latinos, it forged partnerships with Univision and Telemundo. To keep women happy, it came out with a clothing line with shirts that actually fits better than those boxy jerseys. To engage children, the NFL is going where they go: Nickelodeon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NFL RUSH ZONE: SEASON OF THE GUARDIANS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) You are the guardian.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (as character) I'm just a kid.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Sudden Death is coming.

BLAIR: "NFL Rush Zone: Season of the Guardians" is a new series rolling out today, co-branded by the NFL and Nicktoons. The hero is 11-year-old Ish Taylor, who lives in Canton, Ohio, conveniently home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's vice president for Fan Strategy and Marketing, says Ish and his friends are the superheroes called guardians.

PETER O'REILLY: They've really been tapped with special powers and special responsibilities to protect football and the world from an evil force that is out there.

BLAIR: Stars of the NFL show up - Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys, and Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NFL RUSH ZONE: SEASON OF THE GUARDIANS")

CALVIN JOHNSON: Hey, Ish.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (as character) Calvin Johnson, you remember me?

JOHNSON: I couldn't forget the guardian.

The NFL is such a powerful brand, Nickelodeon is clearly thrilled with the pick. A Nick press release boasts that this is the first time a major sports league has partnered with a cable network to create an original series. Keith Dawkins, a senior vice president at Nickelodeon, says the two companies came together because they recognized their common goal.

KEITH DAWKINS: They wanted to see if there was a different kind of way that they could tap into a fan base at a young age - six, seven, eight years old - and create these lifelong fans of the NFL. And then for us, the Nicktoons Network - all animation all the time, 24 hour network, really focusing on boys six to 11, so that's when we realized there was a common sweet spot there.

ROHIT BHARGAVA: I think it's a great idea that's starting to get its legs.

BLAIR: Rohit Bhargava is a marketing consultant and author of the book "Likeonomics."

BHARGAVA: The NFL is one of those few brands that you can look at and say, you know what, they know what their brand and the media platform for their brand is going to look like in 10 years. And a lot of brands don't have an answer for that.

BLAIR: But as a parent, Bhargava says the NFL should also address the real dangers of football.

BHARGAVA: Just the safety of playing football and with the discussion around concussions and kids playing football. And so I think that this effort to kind of involve children in the NFL, but also to think about the role for football for kids in a responsible way, is going to be a huge thing for the NFL moving forward.

BLAIR: Ish - the hero of "NFL Rush Zone" - plays Pee Wee football, but injuries are the least of his problems. He's got 32 NFL teams to protect from evil villains with names like Wild Card and Sudden Death.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NFL RUSH ZONE: SEASON OF THE GUARDIANS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (as character) This all you got, Sudden Death? (Unintelligible) football is tougher than this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Is that all you got? (Unintelligible)...

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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