ESPN vaults tiny H.S. from obscurity to fame

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Now everybody wants to be a Nimrod.

ESPN's "Without Sports" branding campaign has not only helped increase the network's viewership, but it has made celebrities of a tiny community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and boosted a high school's merchandising.

The latest edition of the ESPN campaign, from Wieden & Kennedy, New York, focuses on Watersmeet High School-enrollment: 78-and its unusual nickname, the Nimrods. The first of three 30-second spots made its debut on Jan. 26 and features the basketball team, the community (including a 1940 graduate of the school who sings the fight song) and George Peterson, the coach/athletic director/school principal/district superintendent.

In the seven weeks since, Mr. Peterson said Watersmeet has sold $40,000 worth of athletic apparel thanks to the bags of letters that arrive by conventional mail each day and the hits received on the school's Web site,

As for the Walt Disney Co. network, ratings and brand appreciation are both up since "Without Sports" began. According to the network, last month was the most-watched February in its history with a ratings leap of 14% from 2003 and 41% from 2002. February was the eighth consecutive month of ratings growth for ESPN, according to the network. It was also the most-viewed February for ESPN2, with ratings up 12% from last year and up 50% over 2002.

ratings boost

ESPN Senior VP-Marketing Lee Ann Daly said the network also conducts its own brand relevance survey and last month found an increase of 33% over the previous 12 month period of participants who said ESPN was a brand they could relate to. "I don't think there's any question the campaign had something to do with it," she said.

"Without Sports" made its debut in December, 2002, and last year won a Gold Lion at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes. The campaign has taken a humorous look at how sports have impacted society and everyday life.

"Sports aren't a metaphor for life, they're intertwined in life," Ms. Daly said. "We wanted to pose the question of what would life be like without sports? That's why the tagline on the spots is, `Without Sports, who would cheer for the Nimrods?' "

Though the Nimrods spots are funny, they do not make fun of the school's nickname. Nimrod has its origins in the Bible's Book of Genesis. Nimrod, which means "mighty hunter," is the son of Cush.

"I knew I wanted to do a spot about how sports plays a role in bringing communities together," said Kevin Proudfoot, executive director at Wieden & Kennedy, New York. "Sporting events on a Friday night is where you see teenagers in the same room as their parents and older people from the town, and that kind of social interaction rarely happens outside of a sporting event. And, of course, we're thrilled about what it's done for Watersmeet."

The school has been going through T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, caps and anything else that says "Watersmeet Nimrods" on it at a furious pace. Mr. Proudfoot said there was a distinct reason why he chose Watersmeet. "It resonates on a more universal level," he said. "Watersmeet has so few high school students that they realize they're on a 10-year cycle. Once every 10 years the stars align where they have the right number of kids with natural talent who have a chance at a championship. But what's great about it is, it doesn't matter. The people support the team win or lose."

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