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NFL Now content utilizes unconventional approach to football

During last year's NFL Draft in Chicago, NFL Now, the league's digital network, featured Maurice Jones-Drew and Ike Taylor interviewing Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller.

The setting, though, was different. As they were talking, the current player and two former players were making stuffed teddy bears for their children at a Build-A-Bear store.

Get it, build a bear with a Bear?

"I love the optics of those manly football players stuffing teddy bears while talking about the nickel defense," said David Nickoll, the executive producer of NFL Now and alternative programming. "It's just interesting to see these guys that way rather than just sitting in a chair doing an interview. It gives the player something to do and he lets his guard down."

Unconventional clearly is the direction for NFL Now these days. Nickoll describes the 24/7 digital network as "a personality driven approach to the game." Throw in a liberal dose of pop culture, and well, you get a different look at the NFL.

Programming features "Celebration Station" with Jones-Drew and Taylor taking a tongue in cheek look at the week's best touchdown celebrations; "Fashion Po-Po" highlights the best and worst in player fashion; "NFL Trendzone," hosted by comedians Randy & Jason Sklar, breaks down the week in NFL social media; Colleen Wolfe's weekly "WTF: What The Football" examines the biggest fails of the week. The best of the week from NFL Now also airs as a show Saturday at midnight (ET) on NFL Network.

Additionally, NFL Now produces a weekly live streaming show from 1-5:30 p.m. ET on Sundays called "Game Day Blitz," which Nickoll says replicates watching the games with "really cool friends." The hosts, Taylor, Wolfe, Bucky Brooks, and Marc Istook, have been joined by celebrity guests that include Stone Cold Steve Austin, Tim Meadows, Kevin Pollak and Larry King.

"We show a side of the NFL that I don't think is shown enough," Nickoll said. "While the players play for high stakes, and there are serious issues in the game, it also is a lot of fun. Think of a diagram of the NFL and pop culture, and wherever they both line up, we find it interesting. That's what we're going to do."

Nickoll himself hardly was a conventional choice to oversee NFL Now when he came on board in August, 2015. His background is in comedy. He did a stint as a line producer for the commercial parodies on "Saturday Night Live" and was the head writer for "Comedy Central's @Midnight with Chris Hardwick," "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," and "The Queen Latifah Show."

As for his football background, Nickoll said he was in all of five plays as a back-up quarterback in high school. While he follows the game, he would not have described himself as "a die-hard fan" prior to arriving at NFL Now.

"I told them candidly, in the previous season, I only watched a handful of the playoff games," Nickoll said. "This all came out of leftfield for me."

That was exactly the point. The NFL wanted someone like Nickoll to create a new vision for NFL Now. "(Jordan Levin, the NFL's chief content officer) thought it was asset (that he wasn't an avid fan)," Nickoll said. "He thought I represented the kind of fan they wanted to engage."

That fan, Nickoll said, skews towards the young demographic. "We want to be part of their conversation," he said.

The NFL also wants to widen its net by attracting the more casual fan. That is why NFL Now veered from Xs and Os to more anything goes under Nickoll. For instance, on the heels of the presidential campaign, NFL Now created ads for players like Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown on why he warranted being the top pick in fantasy football.

"We certainly provide enough entertainment for the avid fan," Nickoll said. "But we're looking to bringing in the casual fan. Perhaps it is that fan who is playing fantasy football for the first time. Maybe he or she has a favorite player, and we can show that player in fun way. We're always looking for ways to engage them."

Nickoll, though, stresses that while the aim is to have fun, NFL Now also wants to be informative. The Sklar brothers are doing a weekly segment focusing on how a team off to a terrible start still can make the case for going to the Super Bowl. Last week, they focused on the then 1-5 Bears. While it all was very tongue-in-cheek, Nickoll says the piece contained pertinent facts about the team.

"I've always believed if a joke is going to land, it has to be informed by the truth," Nickoll said. Thus far, Nickoll says he is encouraged by the results. Ratings for the weekly NFL Now show on NFL Network are up 200 percent, he said. Data shows people are spending more time watching the various segments on the site.

Nickoll only has been on the job for a little over year. He says NFL Now continues to evolve as his crew try to figure out what works and doesn't work.

However, Nickoll insists the direction is clear regarding NFL Now.

"I see my job as trying to push the envelope," Nickoll said. "We've had some situations where we've been asked to dial it back a bit. That's OK. It's a fun challenge. We're looking for different ways to look at the NFL."

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