The raison d’etre of any franchise is to expand. Past a single movie; past a single character; past a single medium; past, eventually, the constraints of storytelling altogether. There is no greater badge of blockbuster success than a promotional Happy Meal toy. Or, more recently, a promotional sports game.
This week will see back-to-back iterations of a very specific kind of crossover event—maybe not the most ambitious in history, but certainly one of the most of its time. First, Monday’s Warriors-Pelicans NBA game will transform into a “Marvel-inspired alternate presentation,” inserting an Avengers story line into the unscripted interplay between real-life athletes. On Tuesday, the Yankees-Astros MLB game will be roped into the festivities for Star Wars Day, the unofficial-but-basically-official holiday on May 4. Among other bonus material, the broadcast will feature analyst Tim Kurkjian in costume as Yoda.
Both these broadcasts will air on ESPN, which is owned by Disney, which also owns Marvel and Star Wars. Having conquered the box office, the Streaming Wars, and children’s imaginations, Disney will now fold athletic competitions into its sprawling portfolio of intellectual property. (In keeping with gradual trends, there’s also a streaming element at play; the Marvel event will be the second NBA game to air live on ESPN+.) Because this is Disney, the horizontal integration is larger in scope and scale than any before it—but it’s not the first.
Every entertainment giant has its own assets to merge. For the Walt Disney Company, it’s the Avengers and ESPN; for ViacomCBS, it’s Nickelodeon and the NFL, an odd couple paired up to great fanfare—and lots of slime cannons—for a Bears-Saints simulcast earlier this year. And while it’s not exactly live sports, the forthcoming Space Jam 2 will weave together the disparate parts of the WarnerMedia empire, from obvious candidates like DC heroes to deeper cuts like A Clockwork Orange, under the common cause of watching LeBron James be very good at basketball. The WarnerMedia umbrella also includes NBA partner TNT, so it’s likely a matter of time until Superman shows up on the sidelines.
These special events are of dubious promotional value; chances are you’re well aware of Black Widow and her upcoming prequel if you’re alive and breathing, let alone tuning into a prime-time basketball game with commercial breaks chock-full of trailers. But they are an irrefutable flex, and part of the larger project of trickling loyalty up to a larger brand from its individual components. A service like Disney+ or HBO Max collects a constellation of properties under one roof. A sports tie-in breaks them out from behind the walled garden and inserts them, and their custodians, into everyday life.
There’s also a demographic element at play; Marvel and the like may be the new monoculture, but they are also, ultimately, for children. Eventually, those children may grow up and buy tickets to Deadpool, but while they’re young, it’s easier to leverage their attention into lifelong allegiance to a sport and its various distributors. With the NFL especially, Nickelodeon is part of a concerted effort to win over a demographic whose parents might balk at football as an after-school activity given what’s now known about the sport’s long-term health effects. It’s ethically ambiguous, but also entertainingly absurd!
The particulars of each execution will vary, as will the level of immersion. NBA Special Edition Presented by State Farm: Marvel’s Arena of Heroes—it rolls off the tongue!—will include a whole new metric known as Marvel Hero Points; the Star Wars event has yet to announce any extra mythology. The long-term viability, too, remains an open question. The Nickelodeon-NFL overlap remains a one-off, yet to be topped by a playoff game aired from the depths of Bikini Bottom. But even if these odd hybrids remain solitary experiments, the carefully managed megaverse they symbolize is still firmly in place. With more conventional options exhausted, there’s nowhere left to expand but off the screen.