ESPN was launched in 1979 in Bristol, Connecticut, as the first cable television channel devoted exclusively to sports, although it had limited access to sports programming. One way to fill airtime was to run a daily sportshighlight show. Called SportsCenter, this program could offer much greater depth than the traditional five minutes reserved on the local news. It proved highly popular with viewers. In 1993 ESPN hired ad agency Wieden+Kennedy to promote the SportsCenter brand. What resulted was the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign, which would become one of the most popular and longest-running campaigns on television.
The campaign’s television spots were humorous, topical vignettes that featured ESPN anchors, top athletes, mascots, and other celebrities. One of the most popular spots of the entire campaign parodied the fears of Y2K (also known as the millennium bug, which, it was believed, would cause many computers to crash when their clocks attempted to change the year from 1999 to 2000) by showing an ESPN Y2K test gone bizarrely awry. Chaos ensued in the darkened studios: sirens blared, and star athletes were out of control. The spot closed with crazed anchor Charlie Steiner holding a lantern, a tie wrapped around his head, and his face painted. ‘‘Follow me,’’ he screamed, ‘‘Follow me to freedom!’’ The phrase became so associated with Steiner that in 2002, when he was invited to lead the crowd in the singing of ‘‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’’ at Wrigley Field, he closed by exclaiming, ‘‘Follow me to freedom.’’ The ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign was popular with ESPN’s audience as well as critics, as reflected by its longevity. The campaign also won numerous awards, including the 1997 Best of Show (TV category) at the American Advertising Federation’s ADDY Awards, the 1996 Ad Age Best of Show, and the 1997 Broadcast Best of Show at the American Advertising Awards. In 1999 TV Guide listed the campaign among the 50 greatest commercials of all time, and in 2002 the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing inducted the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign into its Hall of Fame.
In 1979 Bill Rasmussen founded the first cable channel devoted entirely to the coverage of sports events and news. ESPN, or the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, was headquartered on a remote tract of land in Bristol, Connecticut. Before ESPN and SportsCenter, which debuted with the network, sports news was ‘‘confined to the five minute ghetto on the eleven o’clock news,’’ John Walsh, ESPN senior vice president, told the Boston Globe. ESPN expanded quickly, fueled in part by the evolution of sporting events into a pop-culture phenomenon. Athletes like Michael Jordan were no longer merely viewed as competitors; they were powerful celebrities in their own right. By 1998 ESPN reached 73 million homes, and, according to the Boston Globe, it was ‘‘hailed as cable’s most financially successful experiment.’’
No longer just a single sports-broadcasting channel, ESPN had become a sports empire. The network grew to include numerous ventures that capitalized on the reputation and success of the original cable channel:
ESPN2, a second sports cable channel that targeted a younger audience; ESPN International; ESPNews, a channel devoted exclusively to 24-hour sports news;
ESPN SportsZone, a sports information and news site on the World Wide Web; and ESPN Magazine, a sports magazine intended to challenge Sports Illustrated. In addition, the network planned to expand further to include a chain of restaurants, ESPN Grill, and merchandise stores. By 1997 ESPN was worth an estimated $8 billion.
As ESPN’s good fortunes grew, so did those of SportsCenter, which had become the network’s most popular and best-known show. ‘‘It represents the network in its entirety,’’ Tom Clendenin, ESPN’s director of advertising, said of the program. ‘‘It represents ESPN as a franchise.’’ SportsCenter’s anchors, including Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, and Keith Olbermann (who later left to host a news show at MSNBC), became celebrities virtually as popular as the athletes they covered. While ESPN and SportsCenter became more polished and creative, ESPN’s promotions, according to Advertising Age’s Creativity, ‘‘reflected that of a pretty conservative, straightforward cable programmer.’’
This would change in 1993, however, when ESPN hired WiedenþKennedy, the same advertising agency that had turned the Nike logo into a universally recognized symbol. Together, Wieden+Kennedy and ESPN shifted the network’s marketing strategy. They ‘‘wanted people to fall in love with ESPN the brand, and not just the programs,’’ said Wieden+Kennedy’s Larry Frey. Judy Fearing, ESPN’s senior vice president of marketing, elaborated in Advertising Age’s Creativity: ‘‘Wieden [was] . . . very involved in developing a personality for ESPN so that you don’t just look at us and think highlights, you see an identity and an attitude.’’ Before the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ ads WiedenþKennedy produced several well-received campaigns, including ‘‘Kooky College Tunes,’’ in which lounge singer Robert Goulet serenaded NCAA basketball teams. The ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign, however, represented the culmination of Wieden+Kennedy’s efforts to craft a memorable image for both SportsCenter and ESPN.
The campaign’s message, delivered with a deadpan humor that was reminiscent of the style of the SportsCenter anchors, was that ESPN was the hub of all sporting events. The amusing vignettes starring athletes, SportsCenter anchors, celebrities, coaches, and referees made clear the premise that ESPN was the world of sports. In this way the campaign reached out to any viewer with a passing interest in news of the day’s sports. But men between the ages of 18 and 34 were consistently both ESPN’s and SportsCenter’s core audience, and it was this group the network particularly wanted to target with the advertisements.
A combination of topicality and humor was the preferred method for reaching out to the core group. In its satirical style the campaign alluded to many of the same issues that sports fans followed on SportsCenter. Commercials were based on events such as the gutting of the Florida Marlins after their championship season of 1997, the penny-pinching practices of team owners, and boxer Mike Tyson’s carnivorous tendencies. For instance, one spot featured the ‘‘trade’’ of the SportsCenter anchor Charley Steiner to Melrose Place in exchange for one of the good-looking actors from the soap-opera drama. Another spot, ‘‘Marlins Trade,’’ featured batboys cut by the champion baseball team and hired as camera operators for SportsCenter. A spot called ‘‘KidsCenter’’ spoofed the match in which Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
The campaign also spoofed athletes’ personas, exaggerating their personality traits by placing them in incongruous situations. In one popular spot Grant Hill, a basketball player for the Detroit Pistons and a noted nice guy, played the piano, in uniform, in the lobby of the ESPN building in much the same manner as a pianist in a hotel bar. The slickness of the commercials, coupled with their implicit message that the viewer was in on a terrific inside joke, was intended to appeal directly to ESPN’s target audience.
The campaign’s claim that ESPN was the dominant voice in sports reflected a certain reality. SportsCenter was far and away the most watched sports show on television, and ESPN landed several lucrative contracts to broadcast NFL and major-league baseball games. But ESPN faced emerging competition in the sports cable industry, often from channels that deliberately imitated the snappy tone and informal feel of SportsCenter. CNN-SI, launched after the merger of Time Warner (the owner of Sports Illustrated) and CNN, posed a threat because of its huge talent pool of CNN journalists and Sports Illustrated print reporters. But CNN-SI reached only 10 million homes and ultimately fell by the wayside. Fox Sports Network also looked hungrily at ESPN’s revenues and popularity, but it lacked ESPN’s strong sense of identity. SportsCenter faced more potent competition from local cable sports channels like Comcast in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which hosted SportsNite, a 30-minute program devoted exclusively to hometown teams. But when it came to covering sports on a national basis, SportsCenter simply had no peer.
‘‘When you think about it, [everybody does] what they’re doing—highlights, scores, and the controversial athlete soundbite of the day,’’ declared an analyst to the Boston Globe. ‘‘They’ve distinguished themselves largely because of their attitude.’’ The intangible attitude that distinguished SportsCenter from its cable-channel competitors was precisely what the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign strove to convey. But the commercials also tried not to diminish ESPN’s reputation as the single most authoritative source of sports information. In the view of ESPN its competition was not limited solely to other sports cable channels. It considered any program on any television network that went against SportsCenter as a competitor. Even programs such as The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman were challengers. ESPN’s Clendenin encapsulated his network’s philosophy when he said, ‘‘SportsCenter is more than a sports show. It’s an entertainment show.’’
In 1995 Alan Broce, who was then ESPN’s director of advertising, met with Wieden+Kennedy and elaborated the network’s goals for the SportsCenter campaign. Hank Perlman, an avid SportsCenter fan and a copywriter for the agency, provided much of the early inspiration for the campaign. At a brainstorming session he hit upon a unique idea. ‘‘We were blown away by the silliness of this little industrial-park town which sports fans think is the place where it all happens,’’ Perlman told Entertainment Weekly. ‘‘So we decided, why not make Bristol the center of the sports universe?’’ Perlman went on to write most of the first 80 spots in the campaign. By 1997 the campaign had yielded more than l20 spots, yet they never appeared to lose their freshness or to become fragmented. According to Advertising Age, the strength of the campaign was that each spot stood for the spirit of the whole. The relatively low budget (the first 70 spots cost in total less than a million dollars to produce) provided Wieden+Kennedy with the flexibility to continually mine current events for creative advertising ideas. Two of the most popular spots released in 1997, ‘‘KidsCenter’’ and ‘‘Broadcast News,’’ received a great deal of attention. In ‘‘KidsCenter’’ Evander Holyfield, the heavyweight boxing champion, was overseeing a daycare center for the children of ESPN employees. Linda Cohn, one of the SportsCenter anchors, described the unique ‘‘skills’’ these children learned. Holyfield watched over the children as they boxed and admonished them ‘‘not to bite,’’ a sardonic reference to the match in which Mike Tyson bit off a portion of Holyfield’s ear. Holyfield continued his instruction as he warned the children, ‘‘Don’t go out without your gloves on.’’ Dutifully, the children left with boxing gloves. In ‘‘Broadcast News,’’ a spoof of the movie of the same name, a relay race of athletes frantically rushed to get a tape on the air. The spot ended with Drew Bledsoe, the star quarterback for the New England Patriots football team, trampling the University of South Carolina basketball team’s mascot. Although the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign was primarily designed for television, the network released a series of print ads that appeared in sports magazines and in general-interest publications such as Rolling Stone, Spin, and Entertainment Weekly. Advertising Age reported that Wieden+Kennedy overcame the difficulties in ‘‘translating the humor from a TV campaign to a print campaign.’’ The agency used still images to convey the campaign’s fictional documentary style. For example, the television spot featuring Hill playing the piano in his basketball uniform was transformed in print to a single photo. The copy provided additional humor by noting that he was able to play only a couple of times a week during the basketball season.
Most of Wieden+Kennedy’s efforts in the SportsCenter campaign were devoted to television. The commercials were aired on both ESPN and network television programs, primarily during prime-time sporting events such as NBA and NFL games. According to Advertising Age’s Creativity, the overall strategy behind the network spots was ‘‘not only to increase use of regular viewers but to attract the occasional stray fan as well.’’ In addition to snaring new viewers and convincing others to watch the network more often, the campaign was run on network television to increase the brand’s visibility. ‘‘The goal was to make SportsCenter a talked-about brand,’’ ESPN’s Fearing told Entertainment Weekly.
The ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign remained fresh and popular as the new century dawned. The television spots continued to maintain their humorous sensibility, and top athletes were eager to participate for the twice-yearly commercial shoots, willingly accepting their $1,000 fee, paid to the charity of their choice. The most significant change was the way the spots were unveiled to the public. In 2000 the latest batch of spots was first released as content on the ESPN website, www.ESPN.com. With only a limited amount of promotion, the initial spot posted on the first day was downloaded about 64,000 times. These four spots featured hockey player Ken Daneyko, basketball player Jerry Stackhouse, and comedian Carrot Top, who supposedly joined the SportsCenter staff in a bid to keep up with Monday Night Football ’s hiring of comedian Dennis Miller.
In July 2002 SportsCenter aired its 25,000th installment, and to help commemorate the occasion Wieden+Kennedy produced new television spots in the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign. They featured Hilltopper, the Western Kentucky University fuzzy pink mascot, logging in past tapes of the show in the subbasement of the ESPN headquarters, as well as Los Angeles Clippers basketball player Elton Brand.
Instead of the usual array of star athletes, in 2004 the campaign focused on the winner of the national spellingbee championship, covered by ESPN earlier in the year. The young champ, David Tidmarsh, was challenged by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt to spell ‘‘Pujols,’’ the last name of the Saint Louis Cardinals’ star player. There appeared to be no letup to the campaign. In fact, in 2006 ESPN found yet more ways to deliver the television spots to its viewers. They were available on demand at ESPN.com, delivered on DVDs, and in 2006 became downloadable as videos for use on MP3 players.
The ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign generated nearly constant attention from the media. Tom Shales, TV critic for the Washington Post, included the spots in his list of ‘‘the 35 things to be thankful for in television.’’ He wrote that ‘‘the promos make you want to watch the show even if you hate sports and hate promos.’’
Entertainment Weekly raved that the spots ‘‘have delivered some of the freshest entertainment on the tube.’’ The campaign collected numerous industry awards, including
Best of Show (TV) at the 1997 American Advertising Federation’s ADDY Awards, the 1996 Ad Age Best of Show, and the 1997 Broadcast Best of Show at the American Advertising Awards. In 1999 TV Guide ranked the campaign number 22 on its list of the 50 greatest commercials of all time. The Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing inducted the campaign into its Hall of Fame in 2002. Trade magazines such as Shoot, Adweek, and Advertising Age regularly ran articles lauding the innovation of the campaign. ESPN considered the buzz to be a sign of success. ‘‘Anytime you develop an advertising campaign that is talked about, you know that you’ve hit a home run,’’ Fearing told the Sacramento Bee.
The SportsCenter campaign also succeeded in galvanizing public attention and moving the show into the realm of entertainment in the public consciousness. Photos of SportsCenter anchors Patrick and Olbermann were splashed across the same page in TV Guide as those of Entertainment Tonight cohost-turned-pop-singer John Tesh. The spots so captivated people’s imagination that strangers on the street shouted out lines from specific SportsCenter promos when they caught sight of Patrick and Berman. Fearing again summed up ESPN’s delight to Entertainment Weekly when she said, ‘‘Now SportsCenter is part of pop culture.’’
ESPN monitored the response through a telephone survey of hundreds of viewers. The results indicated that the campaign had indeed broken through. Ratings figures rose as more viewers tuned into the show, but even more importantly, viewers increasingly recognized the ESPN brand. ‘‘The consequence has been continuous ratings growth, unprecedented brand recall . . . and a positive buzz among sports elite,’’ an ESPN executive told Advertising Age. Indeed, athletes as popular as Tiger Woods and Dennis Rodman called ESPN to request a spot in the commercials. But perhaps the best indication of the success of the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign was the spate of copycat spots inspired by the campaign. Companies such as the Weather Channel featured spots with the same documentary style and offbeat humor of the SportsCenter campaign. Fearing told USA Today in 2000 that she hoped the campaign ran forever, noting, ‘‘As long as there’s athletes and pop culture to tap into, we’ll keep doing it.’’ Several years later the campaign was running strong with no end in sight.