Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best new creative efforts from the marketing world. View past columns in the archives here.
While certain slogans and jingles have lasted for decades — "Just Do It," "I'm Lovin' It" — rarely do specific ad campaigns have that much staying power. On that short list is ESPN's "This Is SportsCenter" campaign, which first aired in 1995 and was recently relaunched after a pandemic-related pause.
For nearly three decades, "This Is SportsCenter" has used a mockumentary lens to toy with what happens behind the scenes and in between airings of the daily sports news show. By turning ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters into a Mad Magazine playpen of anchors, athletes and mascots, the template has proven particularly durable, no matter what reference points viewers bring to the table, from "This Is Spinal Tap" to "The Larry Sanders Show" to "30 Rock."
The campaign resumed earlier this year, tapping U.S. women’s national team soccer stars, Olympic gold medal-winning track and field athlete Sydney McLaughlin, ESPN talent and several college sports mascots for a series of spots that have continued to tap the knowing, lightly satirical well that is the stock-in-trade of "This Is SportsCenter."
First created by Wieden+Kennedy and then produced in-house for several years, the "This Is SportsCenter" baton is now being carried by Arts & Letters, an independent creative shop based in Richmond, Virginia, that saw the opportunity as a "cool responsibility," said Brenda Schneider, group account director at the agency.
"It's not lost on us that we're being entrusted with greatness, which is humbling and exciting — a moment of just living the dream," she said.
After the high fives and celebration dances of winning the brief comes the real work. Thankfully, there is a contingent of folks among the ranks of Arts & Letters who have worked on the campaign during previous stints at Wieden, bringing institutional knowledge and a sense of what has and hasn't worked before.
"There was a familiarity there that was helpful when it came to identifying the right partners [and] understanding what the conceits could and should be," she said.
Due to safety concerns around the pandemic, ESPN took an extended pause in production to guarantee the safety of everyone involved; being shot at the Bristol studios is central to the campaign's look and feel. When Arts & Letters was brought into the fold to restart the campaign, it was an opportunity to pick up the effort in a way that plays off both familiarity and novelty.
"It’s always extremely collaborative. Both sides of the equation know this campaign intimately well and what works and what doesn’t," said Laura Gentile, executive vice president for marketing at ESPN, said over email. "We never intended to do anything differently here as maintaining the history, creative standard and insight found in the campaign is a high enough bar."
Schneider describes the process as a "clinic in collaboration" where everyone feels like they have skin in the game.
"There was a guy who was handling the feed to the monitors in video village and he was like, 'I worked on 'This Is SportsCenter' 20 years ago,’" she recalls. "He was so pumped that he was doing it again."
Magic and logistics
While every creative staffer approaches the process differently, figuring out new iterations for "This Is SportsCenter" is equal parts rigor and magic. Logistics play a large part, involving questions like which athletes are available and interested, around which sporting events would the ad air, and whether there are other synergies at play, like a premiering property at ESPN sibling brands Disney and Marvel.
The recent "Performance Evaluation" spot, for example, began with a simple insight about the angry face of the Fighting Okra mascot from Delta State University, a small Division II school in Mississippi. In the spot, the mascot has a performance review with SportsCenter anchors Elle Duncan and Kevin Negandhi, who note that the mascot's "co-workers" find him to be a buzz kill. The set-up — combining talent, a mascot and a relatable aspect of office life — is pure "This Is SportsCenter" material.
"It's this rotating door of of trying new things and piecing together what makes sense," Schneider said of the creative process, which continues on set. "Once you get into the room and you're shooting, everybody brings their own thing… it's a living, breathing thing — nothing is ever in stone."
Sports talent plays a huge role in what ads are shot and when. U.S. women's national soccer team stars Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Sophia Smith appear in two ads this year. In one, they eat orange slices — a soccer snack staple — in front of a stunned Otto the Orange in an example of the campaign's absurdist sense of humor. In another, the players wait for a boring staff meeting to end until a referee adds nine minutes of stoppage time to the clock, tying together office culture with a sports phenomenon.
"The Men's World Cup was going on at the same time and there was so much [conversation] around the super high minutes that were coming in stoppage time," Schneider recalls. "You find a little bit of the cultural thread and incredible talent and it all comes together pretty well."