Wieden’s Quest for ESPN Yields ‘Nimrods’

LOS ANGELES When Wieden + Kennedy creative director Kevin Proudfoot and Anonymous Content director Brett Morgen traveled to the hinterlands of the Michigan upper peninsula three years ago to film the local basketball team for three ESPN “Without Sports…” spots, all Proudfoot knew then was that he’d leave with a solid tagline.

“I knew that ‘Without Sports, who would root for the Nimrods?’ would work,” Proudfoot recalled. “What I discovered was that the dynamics of that small town, the characters, were fascinating.”

Known to many only as a Bugs Bunny insult, Nimrods (a Biblical reference for “mighty hunters”) are the beloved team of Watersmeet, Mich. “K through 12 are all in one school, about 200 kids, and only 20 seniors,” said Proudfoot. “So basketball is it.”

The spots sparked a Nimrods a mini-movement. The ESPN campaign became referenced in popular culture, making CBS Sunday Morning and the team followed Ben Affleck on The Tonight Show. “They achieved a little cult status,” Proudfoot said. “They started selling a ridiculous amount of merchandise and DVD copies of the spots. They started producing their own sweatshirts and T-shirts.”

Proudfoot (as executive producer) and director Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) decided to continue the Nimrods’ story, and returned last year to film Nimrod Nation, an eight-part documentary series currently on the Sundance Channel.

Proudfoot knew he found authenticity in the small town of hunting and fishing lodges, where one of the boys was dreaming of being the first Native American to make the National Basketball Association. Everything about the town is colorful to the point of parody, Proudfoot said, from the basketball team playing in the Porcupine Mountain Conference to their arch rivalry with the Bessemer Speedboys. But big city cynicism was exactly the opposite of their attitude. “We don’t want to make fun of their quirkiness,” Proudfoot said, “but celebrate the passion they have as sports fans, revealing who they are as a town and as individuals.”

Wieden backed the project as part of its W+K Entertainment operation, though Proudfoot said his filmmaking career was strictly extracurricular. “I didn’t step out of my normal role,” said Proudfoot, who works in the New York office. “We made the film in addition to my creative duties.”

Proudfoot said there’s no “quantified” benefit for a Wieden client—as there was in earlier agency efforts like the Battlegrounds basketball series and documentary on Roy Jones Jr. for the Nike and Jordan brands. “For [agency management] Dan [Wieden], John [Jay], Dave [Luhr], there was something here worth getting involved in,” he recalled. “They have the attitude that this sort of project is increasingly a part of what we need to be doing as an agency and an office.”

Proudfoot said the mission of W+K Entertainment is that it should be “a resource and an avenue for our people to explore the production of their ideas.

“We have so many talented people here, and we’re in the business of attracting them,” he added. “Allowing people to execute their vision is important. And, more important, we’re increasingly in the business of creating experiences, content that an audience seeks out. The more we are skilled in creating content that people want to engage with, the better we are when we want to apply those skills to a brand. Then, hopefully, they are sought out with the same attention and excitement.”

Proudfoot said he’s proud of the documentary, particularly considering how far from “orchestration of events” the team strayed from modern reality television. “We created a show that’s incredibly honest, entertaining and funny, and not condescending,” he said. “I would have been disappointed, even if the show had been successful, if the vibe was that we’d somehow ‘used’ the Nimrods.”