Beginning with its 1979 cable-television launch, ESPN, Inc. (then officially known as Entertainment and Sports Programming Network), strove to build a brand that was synonymous with sports. After progressively acquiring broadcasting rights to college basketball and football and then, one after another, to each of the major professional sports leagues, ESPN became the dominant sports network on television as well as a cable-industry model for success. Indeed, the proliferation of specifically targeted cable channels in the 1990s and 2000s owed a great deal to ESPN’s example of successfully targeting sports-obsessed men. At the same time, the wide selection of channels that became available to most consumers made it ever more imperative that networks offer a clear brand image. In late 2002 ESPN unveiled its first overall branding campaign, ‘‘Without Sports.’’
Created by the New York office of ad agency Wieden+Kennedy (W+K), the ‘‘Without Sports’’ television spots ran during ESPN’s own programming. The campaign attempted to reinforce the network’s brand image as the sports-fan’s lifeblood while simultaneously transcending the core audience of 18- to 34-year-old men to make the point that nearly everyone was, at bottom, a sports fan. Offering honest and at times humorous depictions of the intense ways in which sports and everyday life were inextricably linked, each commercial asked viewers to consider a particular element of human life that would be lost if sports did not exist. In the campaign’s first season, for instance, a spot called ‘‘Coach’’ showed a wide cross-section of sports fans who, in the throes of complete emotional involvement with televised games, continually offered advice to the players. The commercial ended with the onscreen type, ‘‘Without sports, there’d be no one to coach.’’ A spot in the campaign’s second season showed a father and son playing basketball and postulated, ‘‘Without sports, how would we close the gap?’’
‘‘Without Sports’’ won a Gold Lion at the 2003 International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, and ESPN research indicated that the campaign helped increase ratings as well as brand recognition in its first several years on the air. ESPN remained the premier cable network in the eyes of cable operators, viewers, and marketers during the campaign’s multiyear run.
Started by entrepreneur Bill Rasmussen with funding from Getty Oil, ESPN made its television debut on September 7, 1979, at a time when fewer than 14 percent of American households had cable and the big-three broadcast networks could count on 90 percent of the country’s television audience. Cable as a medium did not yet have a clear identity, and existing cable networks, such as HBO and WTBS, offered programming aimed at general audiences. More than just the first all-sports network, ESPN was the first network to target a specific segment of the American viewing public: namely, sports fans, the overwhelming majority of whom were men. In its early years ESPN filled its programming schedule with a range of non-mainstream sports broadcasts, ranging from college baseball to tractor pulls to Australian Rules Football, and was further defined, in the public imagination, by the groundbreaking sportsnews and highlights show SportsCenter, which ran nightly for one hour. The network was also instrumental in the popularization of college basketball; throughout the early 1980s ESPN attracted its largest audiences during its annual coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and initiated the tournament-time phenomenon that came to be known as ‘‘March Madness.’’ ESPN increased its profile further by acquiring broadcasting rights to college football games in 1984, but the network’s watershed moment came with its first NFL football programming deal, in 1987; its subsequent Sunday Night Football broadcasts routinely topped the cable ratings. After cementing additional deals with Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and eventually the National Basketball Association, ESPN could legitimately claim to be ‘‘the ultimate destination for sports fans and the advertisers chasing them,’’ as Mediaweek’s Keith Dunnavant put it.
ESPN’s success proved, in the words of the network’s first president, Chet Simmons, ‘‘that you could survive and prosper with a relatively small audience as long as you succeeded in targeting the right audience,’’ and a wide range of niche networks followed in ESPN’s wake, transforming television for both viewers and marketers. ESPN itself spawned six additional television networks as well as a successful magazine, the premier website of its kind, and numerous related ventures both in the United States and abroad. In the increasingly competitive cable-TV marketplace, the necessity for network branding became more apparent. Seeking to reinforce and extend its image as the premier source for sports on TV, ESPN enlisted ad agency Wieden+Kennedy’s New York office to prepare the network’s first-ever overall branding campaign in late 2002.
ESPN had built its brand on the simple idea of appealing to men via 24-hour sports coverage. Among all men, 18-to 34-year-olds formed ESPN’s core audience, a segment of the population that was both intensely coveted by marketers and notoriously difficult to reach. The network had further found, according to company executive Artie Bulgrin, that ‘‘if you target a demo like men 18 to 34, you aren’t likely to alienate teens and you aren’t likely to [alienate] the older viewers.’’ This strategy had made ESPN the most effective network in reaching men, according to Jason Kanefsky of the media-consulting firm Media Planning Group. He explained, ‘‘ESPN delivers the double whammy of being able to attract a broad range of men with franchises like the NBA and NFL while also reaching the younger demos with hockey or the X Games.’’
The ‘‘Without Sports’’ commercials, which ran during the network’s own programming, were designed to show this base of sports fans that ESPN was, according to Wieden+Kennedy art director Kim Schoen, ‘‘the world’s biggest sports fan.’’ At the same time, Schoen told Creativity, ESPN wanted to transcend the values of its traditional target audience ‘‘to make the point that sports are part of everybody’s life in some way or another. Even if you don’t think you’re a sports fan, you probably are.’’ The spots therefore focused on moments demonstrating essential connections between sports and ordinary life and asked viewers to consider various ways in which their lives would be less rich without sports. COMPETITION During this time cable and satellite subscribers routinely had access to literally hundreds of television channels; therefore, it became increasingly necessary for networks to define their brands for consumers. Several prominent network-branding campaigns ran at the same time as ‘‘Without Sports.’’
The Turner Broadcasting System’s TBS Superstation, historically associated with rebroadcasts of movies and live broadcasts of Atlanta Braves baseball games, had recently shifted its focus to syndicated reruns of comedy series, including Sex and the City, Seinfeld, and Everybody Loves Raymond. The network thus tapped the ad agency Publicis USA of New York to craft a 2004 campaign repositioning it as a comedy-focused outlet. Publicis used an absurdist setup suggesting that TBS was an authority on comedy; the spots showed ordinary people contacting TBS representatives at a call center to ask whether situations they had witnessed were funny or not. The TBS representatives walked the callers through a set of questions in order to derive an estimate of the situation’s comic value. The spots ran with the tagline ‘‘TBS. Very funny.’’
The USA Network was likewise attempting, during this time, to craft a new image. The network enlisted 72andSunny, an agency based in Los Angeles, to dramatize USA’s distinctiveness, and the agency came up with a series of promotions, including a 2004 spot using characters from two of the network’s programs. Called ‘‘Dueling Disorders,’’ the commercial featured Tony Shalhoub, the actor who played the obsessive-compulsive, eponymous hero of Monk, and Anthony Michael Hall, who played a psychic on the show The Dead Zone. In the commercial the two heroes encountered one another and were mutually repelled by their respective oddities.
The Fox Entertainment Group’s Fox Sports Networks meanwhile hired San Francisco–based agency TBWA\Chiat\Day in 2001 to advertise the network’s coverage of Major League Baseball and National Hockey League games and to craft the network’s brand image. Fox Sports, which supplied content to roughly 20 regional networks, also developed spots focusing on its regional sports coverage.
Wieden+Kennedy’s New York office, ESPN’s primary agency since the mid-1990s, won the network’s branding account with a spring 2002 pitch centering on a made-up game called Shelfball, which resembled baseball and involved a ball, a bookshelf, and an ornate compendium of rules. Supposedly invented by bored W+K staffers as early as 1999, Shelfball and the inexplicable intensity its players brought to the game served as one of the key concepts underlying the ‘‘Without Sports’’ idea. W+K’s Kevin Proudfoot, a copywriter and creative director on the campaign, said that ‘‘Without Sports’’ was meant to capture ‘‘instances where sports and our lives intersect.’’ Six spots revolving around the playing of office Shelfball aired in the initial months after the campaign’s December 2002 launch, highlighting the contrast between the sport’s foolishness and the players’ complete seriousness in the heat of competition. The spots were comical, but they also conveyed the campaign’s central idea of the almost mystical power that sports exerted on human life. The tagline for each of the Shelfball spots was ‘‘Without sports, a shelf would just be a shelf.’’
Other initial ‘‘Without Sports’’ spots were less reliant on humor and more sincere in addressing, as Advertising Age’s Bob Garfield phrased it, ‘‘the mystery of sports.’’ The campaign’s first-year flagship commercial, ‘‘Coach,’’ showed, Garfield said, ‘‘fans from all walks of life, of all ethnicities and both major sexes, gripped in the pleasure-pain of a close game in progress, beseeching players to do the right thing.’’ The action was punctuated by the tagline ‘‘Without sports, there’d be no one to coach.’’ Another spot, reminiscent of a music video, featured hip-hop star Nelly rapping about sneakers while dressed, like his backup singers, in professional sports apparel. The commercial closed with the tagline ‘‘Without sports, there’d be nothing to wear.’’ In 2004 the campaign continued to depict true-tolife scenes illustrating the powerful ways in which sports and life were intertwined. ‘‘Makeshift’’ showed children energetically playing a variety of pickup sports games using improvised playing areas and equipment, like a laundry basket for a hoop and a pizza box for home plate. A series of three spots featured the Watersmeet High School Nimrods, an actual basketball team from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in an attempt to show, as Proudfoot said, ‘‘how sports plays a role in bringing communities together.’’ Another 2004 spot, ‘‘Foul Me,’’ focused on how sports helped bring family members together, featuring a dad and his son playing basketball and using the tagline ‘‘Without sports, how would we close the gap?’’ For the 2005 NCAA basketball tournament ESPN focused on the idea of ‘‘Cinderella stories,’’ those instances when long-shot teams overcame the odds to win emotional tournament victories. Using ESPN parent company Disney’s classic cartoon Cinderella, W+K altered footage to show a sneakerwearing Cinderella riding in a basketball-shaped carriage, in conjunction with the tagline ‘‘Without sports, Cinderella wouldn’t wear sneakers.’’
‘‘Without Sports’’ generated favorable attention within the advertising industry and the press from its inception, and it won a Gold Lion at the 2003 Cannes International Advertising Festival. As of February 2004 ESPN could claim a ratings increase of 14 percent over the previous year and an increase of 41 percent over 2002, the year that closed with the airing of the first spots of the campaign. According to a January 2004 brand-relevance survey conducted by the network, 33 percent more people, as compared with results from the previous year, attested that they identified with the ESPN brand. As Lee Ann Daly, senior vice president of marketing at ESPN, told Advertising Age, ‘‘I don’t think there’s any question the campaign had something to do with it.’’ As of 2005, according to Beta Research (a marketingresearch firm), cable operators, viewers, and advertisers all ranked ESPN as the number one network in a variety of categories relative to perceived value, satisfaction, brand image, and marketing potential.