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HOWARD COSELL USED TO SAY that ex-jocks had no business in the broadcast booth, but then he never saw them do shtick. For that matter, he never saw sportscasters do shtick-although there are many who probably consider his verbal antics with Frank Gifford and Don Meredith a version of the same.

Nevertheless, both jocks and sportscasters take shtick to a new level of understated hilarity in a whopping 30-spot promo campaign for ESPN's "SportsCenter," via Wieden & Kennedy. Written, if you can call it that, by Hank Perlman and art directed by Rick McQuiston, the campaign takes viewers on a pseudo-documentary behind the scenes look at ESPN's flagship news and highlights show. "It's kind of like 'Broadcast News' meets 'Spinal Tap,'" says Perlman, describing the goofy brand of straight-faced conceit that influenced the creative team. "We liked the old Lorne Michaels skits on 'SNL,' like the one where Paul Simon went backstage in a chicken suit. They always played them straight, like they were real behind the scenes looks."

The campaign takes viewers on a strange trip inside the "SportsCenter" newsroom and studios at ESPN's broadcast center in Bristol, Conn. Shot pretty much on the fly by the directing team of Bryan Buckley and Frank Todaro of Radical Media, the spots incorporate off the wall situations, absurd comic asides, hysterical cameos of athletes and team mascots and-in an homage to Rob Reiner's classic send-up of music documentaries-an appearance by Michael McKean in his David St. Hubbins role from "Spinal Tap."

"There are a lot of sports highlights shows," says Perlman. "What sets 'SportsCenter' apart is its personality." To the creative team-and to Buckley and Todaro-what would bring this mixture of credibility and irreverence to life was the notion that athletes hang out there in uniform, doing weird shit like trying to bribe the sportscasters to get their highlights on the show.

Given this strategy, the spots run the gamut from more or less straightforward comedy to out and out absurdity. While anchors Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann are chatting in the bathroom putting on their makeup, the UConn Husky mascot comes out of a toilet stall and exits. "He didn't wash his hands," says a perturbed Patrick. "Paws. He didn't wash his paws," says Olbermann.

Buckley and Todaro refer to the style of the shoot as strictly run and gun. Working with two 16mm cameras, there was a fair amount of spontaneous combustion during the process. "A lot of times, we really didn't know who was going to show up until maybe the night before," says Todaro. While some spots were fairly tightly scripted, others worked from a simple one-line idea-like the one where pro wrestlers show up pissed off that "SportsCenter" doesn't show their highlights (Todaro has a cameo here, where he gets put in a headlock by King Kong Bundy).

The campaign will be running not just on ESPN; the media buy includes late night sports and entertainment programming on both broadcast and cable.

Additional credits to W&K CDs Larry Frey and Stacy Wall, with a nod to Allan

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