As I read the news this week that Wieden and Kennedy and ESPN were parting ways after a 25 year partnership, I kept thinking, “follow me, follow me to freedom”. W+K was responsible for the long running “This is SportsCenter” campaign, among other great work for ESPN. The campaign, which began in 1994, mixed sports, celebrity, and a behind-the-scenes look at the high-rated sports news program.
“Follow me to freedom” comes from one of my favorite spots in the campaign. In this spot, SportsCenter’s production team engages in a Y2K test. Things don’t go well, and in seconds, alarms sound, the lights go out, athletes loot the place. Mark McGwire takes a baseball bat to a computer. Jonathan, the University of Connecticut mascot, a dog, absconds with some awards. The show’s announcers read highlights by candlelight.
As the spot closes, then SportsCenter host Charley Steiner holds a lantern and leads the group away from the chaos, shouting, “Follow me, follow me to freedom!” It is just one of more than 450 spots in the 22 year campaign that chronicled the intersection of sports, celebrity, news, and Bristol, CT. Bristol is a fairly nondescript town about 18 miles southwest of Hartford, CT. Except for the fields of satellite dishes, one would not expect it to be the home of a massive global sports broadcast operation.
The campaign was meant to introduce ESPN’s top on-air talent from the show by showing made-for-tv behind the scenes normalcy mixed with absurd interactions with some of the biggest athletes in sports. The campaign’s spots featured dry humor, mixed with timeliness, and big name current athletes, in a mockumentary style. Sports fans were made to believe the most fantastic place on earth was a studio in a small town in the middle of Connecticut.
The campaign created a fantasy world where athletes and mascots worked side-by-side with anchors and journalists. The W+K creative team seized on this belief, that the ESPN campus must be oozing with top athletes.
“This is SportsCenter” feeds off the fascination of what sports and sports news is assumed to be like behind the scenes, and blends it with pop culture trends. In an era where Nike and sporting good manufacturers portrayed athletes as superhuman, ESPN presented them as relatably human. They sort mail in the mail room, chat with coworkers at the coffee machine, and get through the tedious day like the rest of us — though often in game day uniforms. By bringing them down to size, ESPN built a powerful campaign that athletes angled to be in.
In the early years of the campaign, ESPN had to lure talent to Bristol for the shoots. It did not take long before athletes as popular as Tiger Woods and the Manning brothers called to ask for a role in the next round of commercials.
The spots were relatively low budget. The first 70 were reported to cost less than $1 million, total, to produce. By comparison, the 4A’s estimated a few years ago that the average :30 costs just a little over $350,000 to produce, each.
The campaign generated a lot of media attention. Tom Shales, TV critic for The Washington Post, wrote ‘‘the promos make you want to watch the show even if you hate sports and hate promos.”
The spots gave ESPN and the show a lift in ratings and brand recall, as well as attention from the sports elite. It gave viewers something to watch for during breaks, and some good laughs. For many years, the spots aired only on ESPN properties.
Seth Ader, ESPN’s senior director of marketing, told Adweek in 2014, “They’re a treat for our viewers to stay tuned during the commercials. The campaign really is our way of providing light commentary on the world of sports and the athletes who dominate it. Creatively, it’s really endless. There’s no end to where this campaign can go.”
One of the most popular spots released was ‘‘KidsCenter’’. In it, heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield runs the onsite daycare center at ESPN. SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn opens the spot, describing the ‘‘skills’’ the children learn under Holyfield. He urges them “not to bite”, in reference Mike Tyson having bitten off part of his ear. As the kids end their day and prepare to go home, Holyfield reminds them ‘‘Don’t go out without your gloves on” since it’s cold outside. So the kids left with boxing gloves.
With so many spots created, it kept viewers watching and wondering when the next one would be unveiled, who would be in it, what sports milestone or headline it would capture. Executions were typically a play on current events. For example, this spot about flopping, aired during Soccer’s World Cup.
And thanks to the library of spots amassed over the course of the campaign, ESPN sometimes schedules a classic to mark a star’s passing. As I wrote when Arnold Palmer died, ESPN aired a four-year-old spot featuring Palmer the night after he died.