Article in April 17, 2000 issue of USA Today

ESPN's 'SportsCenter' ad campaign going strong

By Michael McCarthy

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Skater Michelle Kwan hugs Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen as the two anchors await their TV ratings after a lousy show. Relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman runs onto the set to ''close'' for anchor Kenny Mayne, only to fall flat on his face while his Padres teammates howl with laughter off-camera.

Welcome to a day in the life of ESPN's ''This is SportsCenter,'' one of the hippest, funniest and most imitated ad campaigns of the '90s.

When ESPN started these ''mockumentary'' ads in 1995, the idea was for art to imitate reality: to portray this industrial park studio as the center of the sports universe.

Over four years and 140 off-the-wall TV ads later, reality is imitating art. Celebrities like Kwan, Matt Damon and Van Halen are volunteering. Even new endorsement king Tiger Woods may appear.

Their pay? Try $1,000 donated to a charity of their choice.

Meanwhile, the sleepy 43-acre ESPN ''campus'' here has morphed into the faux world portrayed in the commercials.

The celluloid ESPN is a place where Roger Clemens makes ''K'' signs on the copier, boxer Evander Holyfield feeds raw egg shakes to kids in the day care center and hockey legend Gordie Howe shoves his stick into an anchor's throat until he cries ''Mommy!''

In reality, the ESPN staff looks forward to the circus that comes to their offices twice a year and turns their newsrooms, offices and cubicles into a giant commercial set.

What's the lure for celebs?

''The commercials are hilarious,'' Kwan replies. Just off a red-eye flight from Paris, Kwan is still on time for her first SportsCenter spot.

''The campaign has taken on a life of its own,'' says Spence Kramer, ESPN director of advertising. ''The first thing you think of when you think of ESPN is SportsCenter. The second thing you think of is these commercials.''

Anchor Mayne thinks it's the other way around. ''We should run the ads all the time and interrupt them with programming,'' he says.

Ad agency Wieden & Kennedy came up with the idea in 1994 after a week behind the scenes. ''We wanted to take the reality of this place and slightly refract it,'' explains creative director Stacy Wall.

The key to its success: the anchors' dry humor. ''Deadpan, deadpan, deadpan. If we act like it's a joke, then it's not funny,'' Wall says.

This May, the Portland, Ore.-based agency starts rolling out 18 new commercials featuring the likes of Kwan, Hoffman, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams and Martina Hingis, St. Louis Ram Orlando Pace, ex-NFL coach Buddy Ryan and singers Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie and Davey Jones.

A preview of a few:

* ''Scores'': Clutching bouquets of flowers, Patrick and Eisen watch in horror as their bad TV ratings are posted. Kwan consoles them with the kind of banal encouragements skaters get. Patrick hangs his head, bites his towel and moans: ''I left it all on the set. I can't bear to watch.'' Eisen is more hopeful. ''Look, they love us in Idaho!''

* ''The Closer'': When Kenny Mayne tires in midshow, producer John Gluszak yanks him for closer Hoffman. Mayne, a method actor, storms off, breaking objects like a pitcher after a bad outing.

* ''Interruption'': Nothing distracts anchors Stuart Scott and Patrick, except a crash off-camera where Venus and Serena are ''accessorizing'' Eisen with their trademark beads, which spill on the set.

* ''IPO'': SportsCenter's stock offering is a huge hit. That is until Charley Steiner's disastrous interview with a cable business channel causes the shares to plummet.

* ''West Side Field Reporters'': The feud between SportsCenter anchors and reporters boils over into a parking lot rumble.

As the campaign has grown, so has a friendly rivalry among athletes and the anchors. They keep tabs on who appears in how many spots. ''We try to distribute the roles equitably,'' says Lee Ann Daly, senior vice president of marketing.

The ESPN anchors write their own scripts and take pride in their journalism. Yet ''we now get more reaction from the ads than we do from our jobs,'' Scott says.

''Sometimes you feel like saying: How about that nice, crisp, clean writing last night?'' Eisen says.

Like Kwan, Scott won't miss his early shoot although he's working the 11 p.m. show. ''Tee times and SportsCenter shoots are the only reasons to get up early in the morning,'' Scott says.

As these anchors travel the USA, fans love to discuss their favorite spots. Scott gets asked a lot about ''Big Buddies,'' where he rejects a little kid's layup while he and Mayne otherwise harangue their young charges on the hardwood.

Says Scott: ''People say 'why'd you block that kid's shot?' I say he brought it in the middle.''

For a campaign that has won so many awards, the creative process is loose and freewheeling.

The anchors ad-lib much of the action, suggest ideas and suggest names of athletes who want in.

The ads are shot quickly, usually in just a few takes. Kwan nails her performance and is on and off the set within a half an hour.

''We run and gun,'' Daly says. ''We shoot six or seven in a day.''

And they'll try almost anything -- as long as it's funny.

On the spur of the moment, the Wieden team, including original creator Hank Perlman, wonders whether they can fit a real horse into a bathroom stall for another spot, ''Boy's Room.'' They dispatch an assistant to find out. ''Only on a SportsCenter shoot,'' Wall shrugs.

Anything can and does happen. Take the day former Sen. Bill Bradley showed up with pages of notes about taxes only to have Eisen ask him if his ''short shorts'' as a Knick ever gave him a ''wedgie''?

Eisen's favorite memory? Bradley leaning over off-camera to ask: ''Hey guys, what's a wedgie?''

The creators keep the campaign fresh by riffing on real-life events. ESPN spoofed Y2K last year with a spot showing the results of Sports-Center's internal test: lights going out, alarms going off and mascots choking each other. Steiner, wearing a miner's helmet, shouts: ''Follow me to freedom.''

Daly hopes the campaign runs forever. ''As long as there's athletes and pop culture to tap into, we'll keep doing it,'' she says.

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