Inside the Ambitious Super Bowl Ad That Will Kick Off the NFL’s 100th-Season Celebrations

The league's era-spanning spot will feature 50-plus football greats and a cameo by Twitch star Ninja

It’s a jump ball during a take for (l. to r.) Arizona Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald, Los Angeles Chargers’ Derwin James and Jacksonville Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey. Photography by Eric Espino/NFL

The Super Bowl, which will be played Feb. 3 in Atlanta, is the NFL’s annual crown jewel and, arguably, the ad industry’s too. Last February, close to 120 million people watched the game in the U.S. across broadcast and digital platforms. But it’s not just about the action on the field. The commercials are among the most highly anticipated—and hyped—of the year.

And while the NFL itself always has an ad in the Big Game—last year’s Dirty Dancing homage with New York Giants teammates Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning and 2016’s heartwarming “Super Bowl Babies,” for example—this year, the stakes are higher. The NFL is kicking off a year’s worth of celebrations for its 100th season amid divisive issues like players taking a knee during the national anthem, the safety of the game (last summer, CBS News reported that more than $500 million in claims were approved as part of the NFL’s concussion settlement) and even which entertainers would be willing to play the halftime show. Earlier this month,  a Louisiana attorney filed a suit against the league after a much-discussed missed call by a referee led to the Los Angeles Rams’ victory over the New Orleans Saints.

In 2015, in the wake of highly publicized cases of domestic violence involving some of its players, the NFL donated time to and partnered with No More, a coalition of groups fighting domestic violence and sexual assault. There was a buzzed-about PSA (by Grey, the league’s agency of record for a decade, which ended with 72andSunny’s win at the end of last year) addressing the issue, and subsequent No More PSAs that aired during the Big Game in both 2015 and 2016.

This time around, the league is taking an altogether different approach, pivoting away from controversy in the hope of changing the conversation.

“A big part of our strategy is getting back to the game and getting back to why people love the game and engage with football,” explains Tim Ellis, who came on board in August as the NFL’s chief marketing officer after seven years at Activision Blizzard.

Indeed, history and humor play crucial roles in the ad, as Adweek learned during visits to the set while it was being shot in a downtown Los Angeles studio. The commercial poses the question: What would happen if a football game broke out in the middle of a banquet celebrating 100 seasons of the NFL?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning share a light moment on set.

League commissioner Roger Goodell kicks off the proceedings, and Oakland Raiders’ running back Marshawn Lynch—oozing his signature mischief—sets into motion a domino effect that highlights more than 50 NFL legends and current stars. Picture the playful juxtaposition of a stuffy ballroom setting with guests in elegant evening attire, a beautifully decorated cake nearly as tall as a lineman, a fumbled football and (mostly) tuxedoed players acting on their gridiron instincts. Yes, a football game—and a very funny one—breaks out and in the process pays homage to some of the league’s most important historical moments, memorable storylines and outsized personalities.

“You see a football and a cake, and you kind of know where it’s going to go … and you hope it’s going to go there,” says Glenn Cole, 72andSunny co-founder and creative co-chair. “Then it goes there.”

During the three days of shooting, the set was a who’s who of NFL greats. There were members of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins clad in teal jackets. Then some of the main stars from the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty took their turn. At one point, San Francisco 49ers legends Joe Montana and Jerry Rice reunited, with Deion Sanders (who had a long rivalry with Rice playing for multiple teams) playfully interrupting. Also featured: the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, and the league’s current superstars, like Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and Los Angeles Rams teammates Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley.

Though there was a script, it was more of a starting point, with the players being encouraged to express themselves. “It started with Jim Brown all the way down to Saquon Barkley. We’re talking 60 years between these guys—and all of them have great charisma,” says Cole. “We didn’t want them to ‘act’; we wanted them to be themselves.”

Ellis also made it a point to not over-prescribe the wardrobe. “A big consideration was not having the players wear helmets,” adds Ellis. “We wanted to see these players do magnificent things that showed off their skill and what they’re famous for.”

While most players donned classic black and white tuxes, others incorporated their own style. Miller, for example, included a white cowboy hat in his ensemble, and Lynch wore his signature Beast Mode sweats.

“We wanted to show them as human beings and encouraged them to express their sense of individuality,” says Ellis.

Ready, set, sprint

The production schedule for the spot is an interesting story on its own. 72andSunny didn’t win the business till Dec. 5, and then it was time to make a Super Bowl commercial.

“On December 10th, I got a call and was asked if I thought we could get 50-plus legends and current players to show up in one place, at one time, to do this ad,” recalls Tracy Perlman, the NFL’s svp of football communications.

A key consideration besides just organizing so many busy schedules was getting buy-in from the players. Two of the league’s most prominent, vocal and influential past stars, Dallas Cowboys legend Michael Irvin and Sanders, both NFL Network employees, were the first calls.

“I explained the concept and asked them, ‘Do you think we can pull this off?’” recalls Perlman, a 26-year employee of the NFL. “Michael said, ‘I’m in. That spot makes you remember that once [the game] is in your blood, it’s forever in your blood, and every guy you call is going to know that.’”

Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch takes the cake.

Armed with that stamp of approval, Perlman began a flurry of texts and calls. She and her team scheduled athletes down to the minute. She even contacted Peyton Manning in the middle of a preproduction meeting for the ad because she thought “it didn’t feel right” to do it without him.

“It was an interesting ride,” chuckles Perlman.

The agency also had to find just the right director. Peter Berg—whose credits include blockbusters (like the 2013 Mark Wahlberg action movie Lone Survivor), scads of ads and the 2004 football drama Friday Night Lights, and who is a huge football fan in his own right—was the choice.

“My instincts immediately told me that he was the one,” says Ellis, who worked with Berg on a Call of Duty commercial when he was CMO at Activision.

When they weren’t on the ad’s primary set, the players were kept busy posing for portraits while holding gold-painted footballs and doing interviews with the NFL Network and CBS, the network airing the Super Bowl. In the photo studio, it was an almost surreal parade of the league’s biggest stars coming through the door.

Former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan salutes the NFL’s upcoming 100th season.

In walks San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. Then it’s a trio of famed Pittsburgh Steelers, “Mean” Joe Greene, Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw. And Irvin, Dick Butkus, Tony Gonzalez and Brian Urlacher. Oh, there’s Gurley. As they met their idols, current NFL stars became kids again.

“I had posters and Fatheads of these guys hanging on my wall,” says Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey. “It’s inspiring and fun to get on a personal level with them.”

“I walked in the door and had a chance to talk to Jim Brown,” marvels Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. “To be part of something like this is a unique honor.”

Hall of Famer Mike Singletary shows off his stunt chops.

On set, when the cameras weren’t rolling, players reminisced (Rice and Sanders playfully jawing with each other was a particular highlight). Legends of the game chatted up extras, who could hardly believe that they were among some of the NFL’s greats. And, these being pro athletes, there was also a fair amount of friendly competition.

“I’d show someone a clip of what one athlete did or another would be waiting in the wings watching someone else [act], and they’d say, ‘Well, I want to do this stunt’ to try to outdo the others,” says Keith Cartwright, executive creative director at 72andSunny.

Reaching a wider, more diverse audience

While the theme of this year’s ad is to begin celebrations for the league’s 100th season and the love of the game, there are subtler but equally essential messages woven in—specifically, an effort to appeal more directly to women and to a younger demographic.

“There was too much focus on talking to the same existing audience who are watching our games,” notes Ellis. “I felt like there was a real opportunity to broaden our reach and begin to engage with other key audiences, especially younger people. If you spend a majority of your efforts speaking to the converted, then you’re losing an opportunity to bring in a new generation of fans.”

Ninja, the world’s most famous player of the video game Fortnite, has a cameo in the spot (you can’t miss his pink hair). He’s also friends with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver—and fellow Fortnite enthusiast—JuJu Smith-Schuster. Ellis sees crossover potential in the pair, who are an example of the confluence of an athlete, influencer and gamer. It’s an area he’s already explored in his short tenure so far at the league. Soon after Ellis came on board as the NFL’s CMO, he initiated a partnership between the NFL and Fortnite in which gamers could purchase skins of all of the league’s teams starting at the beginning of November. In eight weeks, there were over 10 billion impressions of the outfits seen in the game.

Director Peter Berg chats up members of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins before rolling.

“The NFL had never done anything like that,” says Ellis. “It was hotly debated [internally] because it was a big decision. We had good discussions about it, but we moved ahead, and it paid off.”

In what might be a first for the NFL, there are women in the ad who are not fans, cheerleaders or players’ moms but rather intimately involved with the sport. Referee Sarah Thomas, 14-year-old Utah football phenom Samantha Gordon and broadcaster Beth Mowins all make an appearance.

“There are many opportunities to bring in younger and female audiences,” notes Ellis. “Being inclusive is incredibly important for the NFL to continue to build its audience and become more popular.”

14-year-old football phenom Samantha Gordon gets her hands on the NFL’s centennial football.

A winning play?

Whether the NFL’s Super Bowl spot is a hit or a miss won’t be decided till game day, of course, but it’s hard to think of a better person than Ellis to guide the league’s Super Bowl campaign. He was head of marketing for Volkswagen of America when the brand made its seminal Super Bowl ad “The Force” with Deutsch in 2011. Volkswagen had a 60-second ad but couldn’t get anything other than a 30-second slot for the game. So Ellis made the bold call to release the spot on YouTube ahead of the game, a practice that is now more common for brands.

“[The commercial] was the talk of the Super Bowl before it even started,” he recalls. “At the time, it was a perfect breakthrough strategy for that unique set of circumstances.”

Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw stares down L.A. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

As the league finds itself once again in a unique set of circumstances, Ellis is working to position the brand beyond Feb. 3’s Big Game. To that end, the NFL is planning to weave the spirit of its centennial celebration throughout its marketing, events and philanthropy through 2019. And for the past two years, it has been developing platforms around the celebration that will be driven by the individual franchises. Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s svp of events and club business development, says that “it’s flexible enough so that [teams] can create their own ways to celebrate [the milestone].”

Notes Ellis, “We’ll continue to pay tribute to all the wonderful things that have been a part of football the last hundred years. But, more importantly, we’re going to be looking towards the next hundred years.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.