Published on .

For marketers seeking to differentiate their products or to position them in the best possible way, the connection with a winner is a valuable asset, and sports is an ideal venue. In the U.S., broadcasts of sports events such as championship boxing matches were regularly used to help sell radios by the 1920s. The symbiotic relationship between sports and the media continued with the introduction of TV in the 1940s, but it was with TV that advertisers began to realize they could place ads in sports programming to talk directly to men.

One of the first to use this strategy was Gillette Co. and its ad agency, Maxon Inc., Detroit, which in 1952 introduced an animated parrot named "Sharpie." Originally drawn as a white-line silhouette on a black background, Sharpie was superimposed on the screen over the live telecast of a baseball game or over a boxing ring.

The character appeared on a World Series telecast in 1952, advising viewers that they could "Look sharp! Feel sharp! Be sharp!" The squawking parrot was later fully animated and a jingle was added that promised the "quickest, slickest shave of all."

Another brand that early on took advantage of sports tie-ins was General Mills' Wheaties cereal, which, with ad agency Blackett, Sample & Hummert, signed real-life sports idols as spokespeople, starting with Babe Ruth in the 1930s.

Twenty years later, TV was growing dramatically and Fitzgerald Advertising, then the agency for Wheaties, signed baseball stars Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, as spokesmen. In one 1953 spot, the two sluggers sat at a table, each eating a bowl of Wheaties while glaring at the camera. The message was that real men do not say much-they let their home runs or stolen bases do the talking. Within 10 years, Wheaties was putting athletes on its packaging to visually reinforce its product as the "Breakfast of Champions."

Sports advertising comes of age

One of the most famous uses of a sports celebrity was Coca-Cola Co.'s 1979 spot, created by McCann-Erickson, that featured Pittsburgh Steeler defensive lineman "Mean" Joe Greene. In the commercial, Mr. Greene limped down the players' tunnel to the locker room. He was met in the tunnel by a young boy holding a large bottle of Coke who asked Mr. Greene if he wanted the soda; Mr. Greene declined. The boy persisted, stammering, "I just want you to know that—that you're the greatest." Obviously nervous, the boy again tried to give his Coke to the player. Grabbing the bottle, Mr. Greene chugged the soda down in one swig while the dejected boy to start walking away. Then Mr. Greene yelled, "Hey kid . . ." and tossed the boy his jersey. The boy's response—"Thanks, Mean Joe!" with a huge, broad grin—embodied Coke's slogan, "A Coke and a smile."

Beginning in 1973, Miller Lite featured retired athletes in a campaign that used taglines such as "Less filling; tastes great" and "Everything you always wanted in a beer . . . and less," also created by McCann.

The campaign began with a spot in which ex-New York Jets running back Matt Snell was shown talking into the camera about the many empty beer bottles at his bar table. Mr. Snell mentioned that he had had help in consuming all those beers, but the message conveyed was that Miller's new low-calorie beer ("a third less calories than their regular beer") allowed people to drink more without feeling full. Over the next 17 years, Miller featured other former sports stars as well, including football legends Dick Butkus (Chicago Bears), Bubba Smith (Baltimore Colts) and Deacon Jones (Los Angeles Rams).

Some of Miller Lite's best-known spots (created by Backer & Spielvogel) featured baseball players such as Bob Uecker and Marv Throneberry, who had been less than great on the field. As antiheroes, they helped push the Miller Lite campaign to national prominence.

From 1982 to 2002, with agencies Chiat/Day and, more prominently, Wieden & Kennedy, Nike created numerous award-winning spots that featured active sports professionals as product endorsers. The best-remembered TV commercials for Nike generally featured either basketball legend Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls), multisport star Bo Jackson (Oakland Raiders/Kansas City Royals), basketball player Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets) or tennis great John McEnroe. The spots were made even more powerful with terse catchphrases such as "Just do it" or "Must be the shoes."

In 1993, McDonald's Corp. and Leo Burnett Co. raised the sports hero as pitchman to a new level in a commercial for Quarter Pounders that centered on competition between Michael Jordan and on-court rival Larry Bird. The ad featured Messrs. Jordan and Bird challenging each other to make absurdly impossible shots ("off the billboard, through the tunnel, nothing but net"). It mixed traditional playground bravado with references to the product in such a comfortable way that fans could relate to the dueling stars. McDonald's unveiled the spot on the Super Bowl XXVII telecast.

Other prominent venues

While the Super Bowl remains a premier venue for unveiling new creative work, other sporting events also offer broad consumer appeal. The Olympic Games, the World Cup and to a lesser degree the World Series and NBA finals are all successful in attracting large, diverse audiences.

Some sports, however, appeal to more narrow segments of the public. Tennis, golf and horseracing (particularly the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes), for example, have been effective in reaching a more upscale audience. Companies such as financial service institutions (Visa, American Express), high-end automakers (Mercedes, BMW) and insurance firms (Prudential, John Hancock) have used the appeals of particular sports to advertise to selected groups.

Auto racing, particularly events sponsored by NASCAR, has been particularly successful in reaching middle- and lower-income families. In fact, of all sports NASCAR may be the most effective at suggesting to its fans that there is a connection between the support of sponsors and the very existence of events. To that end NASCAR fans are thought to be the most emotionally connected and loyal to the products of the advertisers and sponsors of the racing teams they follow.

In the case of the NFL, NBA, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, advertising has traditionally been reserved for those areas of the stadium where the games are actually played. In hockey, ads are used on the dasher boards and have increasingly come to be painted under the ice. Basketball and baseball use rotating Dorna boards (in the case of the latter behind home plate) that contain several ad messages that are changed during the course of a game. All of these sports use wall and scoreboard signs, some of them illuminated, for advertising messages.

The televising of sports has had an enormous effect on advertising. In addition to the broadcast networks, cable TV networks such as ESPN and Fox Sports, which provide either national or regional cable coverage of sports, have made it possible for people to view sporting events and sports news 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Because of the enormous costs associated with purchasing the rights to premier sporting events, however, both the broadcast and cable networks must advertise their own sports programming in order to hold existing viewers and to attract new ones.

Perhaps the best example of this is the relationship of the NFL with its four broadcast partners (ABC, ESPN, CBS and Fox). The NFL sold the TV rights to its games for eight years (1998-2006) for $17.6 billion. In turn, the four networks that bought the rights regularly run promotional advertising to get viewers to watch their NFL-related programming.

The antihero and the cutting edge

At their heart, sporting events have an unpredictability that endears them to advertisers. New heroes and villains, whether individuals or teams, are created almost daily. One trend in advertising has been to employ the "bad boys" of sports to help sell products. Examples have included basketball players Charles Barkley (Nike), Dennis Rodman (Chicago Bulls; Pizza Hut, Converse, Kodak) and Allen Iverson (Philadelphia 76ers; Reebok), all of whom brought with them a certain street credibility as a result of their recurring antisocial behavior.

A similar phenomenon occurred outside the U.S. In the Netherlands, Wieden & Kennedy used former Manchester United soccer player Eric Cantona in a Nike commercial titled "Good vs. Evil." The spot featured an all-star team of Nike endorsers playing a game against the "forces of evil." The mock contest was decided when Mr. Cantona scored the game's only goal.

Another method of sports advertising that has developed is known as "virtual signage." Virtual signage, which is created electronically, allows TV viewers to see advertising on an arena's floor or a stadium's pitch that spectators in the actual venue do not see.

Most Popular
In this article: