ESPN sports winning attitude

By Published on .

Advertiser: ESPN

Agency: Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Oregon
RATING: 4 stars

Heisman and prison candidate Lawrence Phillips, who alternately pounds off-tackle and his ex-girlfriend, has been reinstated to the Nebraska football squad.

Now hold that thought a moment, and then think about those on-air promos we've been getting for decades from the NCAA. You know, those absurdly pollyanna and self-serving messages about how college sports build leadership and develop character in our young athletes.

Of course, as the Phillips episode reminds us, what big-time, big-money, small-academics college athletics develop in student athletes is the certain understanding of the inverse relationship between their time in the 40 and their need to study, obey the law, respect others and avoid booster geeks bearing gifts.

Meantime, the road to substance abuse is paved with semiliterates who ran a 4.5 but never graduated college--or even high school--and who now wear paper hats or Day-Glo orange overalls.

Yes, we so love the sports world that year after year we sacrifice thousands of our begotten sons.

So thank God, amid the hypocrisy and denial over big-time athletics, someone's message about sports shows a measure of perspective. That message is on the air now courtesy of Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., for ESPN.

Promoting the "Sportscenter" news and highlights show, this splendid campaign takes us "behind the scenes" for insight into how the lively, informative and entertaining show is produced. The offer is tongue-in-cheek--the whole campaign is a straight-faced parody of behind-the-scenes looks--but the insight is nonetheless there.

Goofy and extremely well-produced, the spots vividly capture the network's unique combination of relentless dedication to, and irreverence about, the wide world of sports. Whether it's the one with anchor Keith Olbermann leading a pre-broadcast prayer, or Rangers' goalie Mike Richter kissing up to the whole staff, or Mary Lou Retton doing handsprings down the newsroom hallway for no apparent reason, the goal is achieved: hilariously conveying the network's personality, perspective, whimsy, intelligence and, above all, attitude.

Let others wax melodramatic about the human drama of athletic competition. ESPN loves sports, but doesn't worship them. It is fascinated by sports, without obsessing over them. It has respect for sports, without fawning over them.

For example, while the rest of the world has deified Detroit Pistons guard Grant Hill because he is gifted, studious and humble, this campaign sticks him in the ESPN lobby, in uniform, playing piano for tips. When anchor Dan Patrick walks forlornly by, Hill notices his dejection.

"Hey, Dan, what's wrong?" "Hey, Grant. Uhhhh . . . bad show. My hair looked bad. TelePrompTer went down. Made some mistakes on some highlights." "I got something to cheer you up," Hill says, and he starts plunking out the chords for the "Charge!" riff baseball stadium organists play during a home-team rally. Dan smiles and bounces his head to the beat. "Thanks. Thanks, Grant," he says, stuffing a bill into the brandy snifter on the piano, "I appreciate that." And as Phillips the thug rejoins the Cornhuskers amid all sorts of transparent double-talk, hey, Grant, we do, too.

You can e-mail Bob Garfield at EFPB35A@prodigy.com. His reviews are also available via Ad Age/Creativity Online on eWorld.

Copyright October 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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