As the NBA postseason hurtles toward the championship round and with just days to go before the network hosts its annual upfront presentation, ESPN has taken the wraps off a new global brand campaign designed to celebrate the restorative power of sports.
Developed in conjunction with Droga5—the agency's first work for the network since becoming its lead agency last August—the "Life Needs Sports" initiative articulates how the games we love can serve as a corrective to the dreary importunities of the quotidian. If life spills your Dunkin' Donuts coffee down the front of your crisp, white dress shirt, sports gives you the singular spectacle of an absolutely filthy LeBron James dunk. If life is forever telling you that you're too small to ball, sports would like to introduce you to a guy named Chris Paul.
The first spot in the new campaign began appearing Wednesday on its various Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook accounts. The 15-second "Smaller" execution features the on-court heroics of NBA stars like Houston's CP3 and Warriors wiz Steph Curry, who, as it happens, will square off in the Western Conference Finals starting May 14.
Shortly after the "Smaller" clip landed in social-media circles, ESPN bowed its 30-second version of the spot during the 3 p.m. ET telecast of Rachel Nichols' hoops-centric show, "The Jump." The "Smaller" spot features rapper Skee-Lo reprising his 1995 single "I Wish," only instead of yearning for a growth spurt as in the original ("I wish I was six-foot-nine … I wish I was taller"), the new version recognizes how the NBA has been transformed by the dynamic play of more compact players like Curry and the Celtics' Terry Rozier.
As a relatively lilliputian ball handler breaks the ankles of Skee-Lo's 6' 8" stand-in with an orthopedically ruinous crossover, the rapper turns his familiar lyrics inside-out ("I wish I was, like, five-foot-nine, on the three-point line"). Like the NBA, this neighborhood playground is no longer the domain of those with wildly overprotective pituitary glands. (At the risk of being horribly pedantic, it's worth noting that Skee-Lo stands a reported 5' 8" tall; as such, his stated desire to be 5' 9" sort of contradicts his titular yearning.)
The "Smaller" spot ends with the kicker "Life Measures Height, Sports Measures Heart."
In order to ensure that every piece of its brand creative feels as up-to-date and relevant as possible—there are perhaps few things less stirring than an aspirational spot featuring a player who's just sustained a season-ending injury—ESPN will actively refresh the content of the promos over their respective lifespans. "We're planning to have a very nimble approach," says Wanda Young, senior VP for marketing and consumer engagement at ESPN. "As we go forward, we're going to react in real-time to the moments that are happening in sports and launch very specific responses to those moments."
Swapping out the Raptors
As it happens, ESPN had an opportunity to swap out some footage from the "Smaller" spot before the premiere. In a rough cut screened by Ad Age late last week, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry originally appeared in the segment now occupied by Boston's Rozier. On Monday night, Cleveland completed its sweep of Lowry's squad, giving ESPN staffers about 24 hours to refresh the inaugural promo. With the Celtics just one win away from booking their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals, Rozier was thought to be an ideal replacement.
The second ad in the campaign evokes the emotional bonds between Major League Baseball stars and their bats: The 15-second "True Love" presents a sequence of still shots of players like the Cubs' Javier Baez and the Phillies' Ryan Howard planting a few wet ones on their Louisville Sluggers. Scored by Kendrick Lamar's trap cut "Love," the spot concludes with a live-action shot of Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig licking his bat under the tag "Life Has Relationships. Sports Show Us True Love."
Upcoming installments include a WNBA-themed effort ("Bossy"), and a second NBA spot, "Rafters."
"This is about a series of sports moments, moments where sports truths intersect with valuable life lessons," Young says. "Those will be evergreen and will continue along the lifespan of the campaign."
Young went on say that the "Life Needs Sports" campaign would speak to how sports, at its very best, can serve as a powerful catalyst for bringing people together. "It all serves as a reminder that sports is an integral part of fans' lives, and that it helps us all connect to those bigger human moments," she says.
The campaign will be appear in ESPN markets around the world, including Australia, Argentina, Brazil, India, South Africa and the U.K.
ESPN began its first-ever brand campaign in December 2002. Wieden & Kennedy New York, which also developed the long-running "This Is SportsCenter" effort, ran herd on the inaugural "Without Sports" campaign. Among the directors who lensed spots for that early initiative was the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
Developed at a time when ESPN had very little in the way of round-the-clock competition in either the TV or digital realm, "Without Sports'' won a Gold Lion at Cannes in 2003.