SBJ/September 19 - 25, 2005/SBJ In Depth

This is SportsCenter

In this ad, Andy Roddick bounces a tennis ball off his racket while waiting in the ESPN lobby, something that irritates the UMass Minuteman.
During a decade of “This is SportsCenter” ads, ESPN’s anchors have donned lederhosen, garter belts, sombreros and Mickey Mouse ears. They’ve crowded into elevators with Mr. Met, flattened the Syracuse Orange when it got annoying, cowered under a desk to avoid a beating from Evander Holyfield and counseled athletes such as Kobe Bryant and Keyshawn Johnson on how to “cuss like a sailor.”

What began as an effort to reflect the nexus of sports and pop culture has itself become a pop culture icon. After almost 250 spots, some at ESPN have suggested that the Wieden & Kennedy campaign is the real attraction on the various ESPN networks, something that’s all too often interrupted by other programming.

“You never expect any campaign to live for 10 years,” said Judy Fearing, senior vice president of consumer marketing at NFL Network. Fearing launched “This is SportsCenter” while she was ESPN’s senior vice president of marketing from 1994 to 1999. “It just shows we had a good idea originally that has been managed well since.”

Anyone who works in sports is relentlessly interrogated by friends and relatives, who think it’s a nirvana of big events and schmoozing with top athletes. “This is SportsCenter” lives off that eternal fascination with what sports is like “behind the curtain” and blends it with pop culture trends.

There have been ads spoofing Y2K fears, the IPO mania of the dot-com era and high school athletes being rushed to the pros (a teen anchor prodigy gets cut after his “SportsCenter” game analysis consisted of “it sucked.”)

See: Commercial success
A sampling of some of our favorite “This is SportsCenter” advertisements
“It’s allowed us to fuse pop culture with our brand,” said Lee Ann Daly, ESPN’s outgoing executive vice president of marketing. “It was our brand campaign for a long time because it was always less about ‘tune in to SportsCenter at this time’ and more about the attitude and sense of humor of the brand.”

In 1999 “SportsCenter” got a more specific tune-in message with the “Which SportsCenter do you watch?” campaign.In the winter of 2002-03, ESPN launched the “Without Sports” campaign as a branding effort. But “This is SportsCenter” remains the most indelible advertising from ESPN and Wieden & Kennedy.

Staying fresh

Riffing off the latest pop culture is Wieden & Kennedy’s charge and it’s allowed the agency renowned for building the Nike brand to keep the campaign from becoming stale.

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Snapshots: Major advertising agencies
So while Kevin Proudfoot, co-executive creative director at Wieden & Kennedy New York, is happy to have finally written a part for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani into the next round of ads, he’s just as distressed about lost opportunities, such as in June when Russian President Vladimir Putin pocketed New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring. Proudfoot figures it’s no longer topical enough for the round that will air next month.

“Once you start working on this campaign, you can’t read a sports section or watch ‘SportsCenter’ without thinking, ‘Is there an ad in that story?’” Proudfoot said.

Since so many of the ads depend on simple sight gags, a fair amount of them are written on site. An ad with a jockey inspired the question as to why a horse had never been in an ad. Within a few days, a live horse was inside a bathroom on ESPN’s campus. Stuart Scott, washing his hands, greets Rich Eisen emerging from a stall, followed by a jockey in full silks coming out of another stall door, and finally, a race horse emerges from another stall. After registering some surprise at the equine visitor, Scott continues washing up — it’s just another day at ESPN.

Another extemporaneous spot has a couple of UNLV cheerleaders, originally on hand as scenery for another ad, helping Scott reach a distant coffee room shelf. They give him a boost, complete with a “Go Rebels!” cheer.

There are some spots written for specific personalities or awaiting an athlete. Wieden & Kennedy hopes to convince Randy Moss, or some other star athlete who left a team under less-than-ideal terms, to do an ad called “Old Friends.” The gag calls for Moss (or whomever) to happen upon the mascot of his former team in ESPN’s cafeteria, creating an uncomfortable moment for both.

There are scripts that never make it to the shooting stage, such as a concept where Karl Malone was cast as the office mailman (he rejected it). There are ads that were shot but stretch the limits of one of TV’s edgiest campaigns. The homage to Jerry Springer “Much Too Hot For SportsCenter” was too faithful to its name.

TOP: The ad campaign reaches all areas of popular culture, as obvious by this spot in which Dan Patrick hits pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the back with a folding chair. BOTTOM: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets a little carried away during a fire drill.
A takeoff on the ESPN Zone restaurants inspired a bistro where former NFL coach Buddy Ryan was the maitre d’, heading a waitstaff with the Williams sisters, Orlando Pace and the Philly Phanatic. The spot was filmed but was considered too bizarre and never ran. Said Proudfoot, “In hindsight, we’ve run worse.”

Other spots written with specific athletes in mind include a blindfolded 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan swinging at and missing a piñata, and Roger Clemens copying a seemingly endless string of Ks (“I’m gonna be awhile,” Clemens advises the anchor waiting to use the copier).

There are ads that only exploit the mockumentary style, such as the supposed rift between anchors and file reporters, which degrades into a West Side Story tribute; a piece in which a Spinal Tap band member explains how he wrote the “SportsCenter” theme; or the explanation of what the anchors are saying to each other when the music comes up at the end of a show. (“When was the last time your hair actually moved?” a sneering Keith Olbermann asks Dan Patrick. “When you ran your fingers through it,” Patrick retorts).

An early classic in that genre showed the same pair debating NHL tough guys, while applying makeup in front of a mirror with the same earnest conviction. “You need some more rouge,” Olbermann advises Patrick. “Your foundation has looked great lately,” Patrick replies.

A perennial favorite is Holyfield’s day-care spot, in which he reads a kids’ book about the “Rumble In The Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and advises the children “not to forget their gloves,” before handing them boxing gloves. The Los Angeles Angels’ rally monkey also made an appearance, one of an endless supply of mascots that have long been a staple of the campaign, sometimes as the protagonists, and often as window dressing.

“The toughest thing with mascots — and some athletes — is getting them to play it straight,” said David Shane, who has directed the campaign over the past five years for Hungry Man Productions. “Our funniest ads are the ones that are dryly absurd — they don’t need shtick.”

A good example is an ad where a bored Andy Roddick absentmindedly bounces a tennis ball off his racket while waiting in the ESPN lobby. Mirroring the exasperation of those around him, the UMass Minuteman grabs the ball, ending the din.

Some original inspiration for the campaign began with Wieden & Kennedy dispatching a team of writers to ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., newsroom for a week to see how “SportsCenter” was created. Ever since, the newsroom and campus have served as the backdrop for the ads, to lend authenticity.

So we’ve seen Grant Hill playing the piano in the ESPN lobby; famed groundskeeper George Toma, “The Marquis de Sod,” replacing ESPN’s carpeting with grass; and hot-dog-eating champion Takeru Kobayashi wolfing down food in ESPN’s cafeteria.

Shooting on your own location is also economical, though when a renowned athlete such as Tiger Woods says OK, Wieden & Kennedy will shoot off site. The ad where a gallery of 200 or so fans trail Woods through the halls of ESPN was shot in Las Vegas, though the set was a convincing match for ESPN’s Bristol headquarters.

“The weirdest thing is that our original concept has become self-fulfilling,” said Wieden & Kennedy’s Proudfoot, who has been working on the campaign for seven years. “When we started this, we knew there weren’t really athletes and mascots walking around ESPN’s offices, but now there are, because we’re shooting there two or three times a year.”

Wanting to take part

A switch to high-definition equipment leads to ESPN hiring a more sophisticated staff, namely characters from Star Wars. One highlight includes Darth Vader guarding the tape library.
Measuring advertising is always problematic, but for the “This is SportsCenter” campaign it was always about generating excitement among the hard-core sports fans who compose its core audience. While the campaign was conceived as a way to promote the network’s flagship program, it also positioned ESPN as the center of the sports universe.

“We measured ratings and awareness,” Fearing said, “but it always got down to buzz and how broadly different constituencies related to it. We knew it was effective because we had that right away.”

A story from the first shoot, perhaps apocryphal, was that three athletes were invited and none showed up. That’s no longer the case.

“There’s definitely a culture of entitlement when it comes to famous athletes,” Shane said, “but with this campaign, it’s generally a labor of love, because by now a lot of them have grown up with the campaign.”

Now having a “SportsCenter” spot is a singular distinction, even though the athletes and other celebrities who appear have never been paid more than a low four-figure honorarium to their favorite charity.

“Some endorsements are more important for status than money,” said Jordan Bazant, a partner in The Agency, who put golfer Jim Furyk in a “SportsCenter” ad shortly after he won the 2003 U.S. Open. “If your client is ‘Going to Disney World,’ on a Wheaties box or in a ‘SportsCenter’ ad, it tells everyone he’s arrived.”

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Related Topics:

ESPN, NFL, NHL, In-Depth, Wieden Kennedy

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