Weiden & Kennedy Spots Exactly Capture Sports Audience Angst

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Client: ESPN
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy, New York
Star Rating: 3.5

The AdReview staff didn't care who won the Super Bowl.

Not because we aren't interested in sports. We're extremely interested, to a degree that flummoxes even ourselves.

The 'Coach' is one of the spots from the new ESPN campaign.
We -- this imposing assemblage of highly evolved thinkers steeped in literature, art, politics and ideas -- have devoted countless hours, season after season for 40-some years, desperately rooting for a bunch of 25-year-old, mouth-breathing freaks of nature to bring us home a championship. And when Tampa's mouth breathers beat our mouth breathers, we lost all interest in getting up in the morning, much less the damned Super Bowl.

Mystery of sports
But why? What is the source of our intense devotion? What is this thing, this mystery of sports?

That's the question underlying every frame of the ESPN "Without Sports" campaign from Wieden & Kennedy, New York. The proximate objective is to document the many curious manifestations of human fascination with ESPN's stock-in-trade: the game-playing of overpaid total strangers. But, implicitly, the ads do so much more. With the network's trademark mixture of reverence and irreverence, they elevate sports to a secular religion. And they do so with neither congratulation nor scorn.

One spot shows the hip-hop star Nelly rapping "Air Force Ones," about sneakers. He's dressed in various pro apparel, as are his back-up singers and DJ, as per the fashion dictates of hip-hop culture. The jerseys aren't prayer shawls or vestments or hijab, but they might as well be.

"Withouts sports," the onscreen type

wryly observes, "there'd be nothing to wear."

Bookshelf baseball
A hilarious series of spots shows two guys wasting office time in a goofy game of bookshelf baseball, played in dead seriousness according to a Talmudic body of evolving law and interpretation. ("Double!" "That's not a double. It was a one-bouncer in the bottom shelf." "Fine, it's a single.")

The most revealingly theological of the commercials, though, is about the total surrender to the greater power. It's a montage of tested faith: 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. "Let's do it!" "What are they taking their time for?!" "Tackle somebody!" "Go, baby, go!"

Agony and ecstasy
These are images of agony and ecstasy, prayer and undelivered redemption, of human being utterly detached from everyday reality and given over to forces beyond their control -- begging the question, at every instant: Why?

The explanation, of course, is that there is no explanation. The power is in the paradox. As the Catholic Church says in its liturgy: "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith." This gives believers leave to worship without the justification of mere human reason.

And us, the wretched unredeemed, to look forward to NFL draft day on ESPN.

From the Animal Recognition Dept.: In last week's Super Bowl roundup, the AdReview staff misidentified the breed in the Bud Light spot about dog-fur dreadlocks. The dog is a puli. Also, in the Levi's spot featuring a thundering stampede, the animals were bison, not bulls.

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Bob Garfield's new book on advertising, And Now a Few Words From Me, is available through McGraw-Hill/Ad Age Books at