With Beyonce as the Soundtrack, the Sports World’s ‘Real Heroes’ PSA Goes Live

Historic campaign honors front-line medical workers by name

The Real Heroes Project
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

From their kitchen tables, living rooms and backyards, with their pets and kids and significant others in tow, some of the most recognizable faces in sports are honoring front-line medical workers in the fight against Covid-19.

And they’re doing it in the most visible way possible: plastering the names of emergency-room doctors, obstetricians and EMTs on their game-day jerseys, racing suits, polos and tanks, and then breaking into stadium-quality cheers.

“The world of sports thanks you for reminding us what it means to be great,” says the two-minute PSA that documents the effort. Then it nudges the rest of us to “thank a hero of your own.”

The spot, launching today—National Nurses Day—with Beyonce’s Halo as the soundtrack, comes from Los Angeles agency 72andSunny and production partner Hecho Studios after a historic alliance between 14 powerhouse professional sports leagues and entertainment brands. The Out of Home Advertising Association of America will also coordinate a national OOH advertising effort supporting the campaign.

Dubbed “The Real Heroes Project,” it’s the culmination of an unprecedented collaboration among marketing A-listers from the NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, WWE, Nascar, the Women’s Tennis Association and Electronic Arts, among others.

The PSA features more than two dozen athletes such as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, World Cup soccer winner Carli Lloyd, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and WWE’s Triple H.

The video, produced remotely with DIY footage filmed by the athletes, aims to spark a lasting movement.

Organizers—senior marketing executives like NFL CMO Tim Ellis, NHL CMO Heidi Browning, NBA’s CMO Kate Jhaveri and Activision Blizzard Esports CMO Daniel Cherry III, who initially connected via Adweek-led virtual gatherings—are hoping for buy-in from athletes of any and all levels, from neighborhood pickup games and Saturday-morning T-ball to high school and college teams.

Professional athletes are taking the lead, with those in the video and their teammates making digital tributes and sharing them on social media.

The athletes starring in the PSA, some of whom are honoring family members and personal friends, told Adweek they wanted to turn the tables for those who are saving lives and risking their own.

“I can’t imagine everything they are seeing day in and day out, and how stressful life must be for them,” says George Kittle, All-Pro tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, who cheers on his friend from high school and college, Kari Mueller, a registered nurse at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee.

“I hope that all of the people that are risking their lives every day to protect and treat those in need know how much we admire and look up to them,” Kittle says. “And I hope this is a small way to show how much all of us care and appreciate everything they’re doing.”

Victoria Azarenka, a WTA Grand Slam singles champ, is honoring a deceased nurse named Araceli Buendia Ilagan, who “dedicated nearly 33 years of her life to working with the most critically ill hospital patients” in Miami. “As she was fighting to keep many others’ loved ones alive at the Jackson Memorial ICU unit, she became ill herself with Covid-19 and passed away.”

The WWE’s Charlotte Flair says registered nurse Jill Cardone (Hartford Healthcare in Connecticut) is “an inspiration to me. She makes me want to be a better person.” By revamping the robe she wears on competition nights, Flair says, “I thought it would be a unique and memorable way to honor her.”

Two tennis stars, Coco Gauff and Bianca Andreescu, are celebrating close friends, while another top-ranked singles player Ashleigh Barty is shouting out her sister, registered nurse Sara Coppolecchia. Meanwhile, WTA two-time Grand Slam singles champ Naomi Osaka calls attention to Dr. Shamsah Amersi, an obstetrician in Los Angeles who is “not only delivering babies in such difficult circumstances, but in her spare time she is working around the clock to find extra PPE for her colleagues and to feed those that can’t get meals on their own.”

Even before any potential groundswell, the video was generating buzz for its lightning-fast meeting of the minds between often-competing leagues and brands, brought together during the pandemic by Adweek staffers, including chief community officer Nadine Dietz and editor and svp of programming Lisa Granatstein. Via Zoom calls and Slack channel discussions, the C-suite execs hatched the plan for “The Real Heroes Project.”

WWE’s chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon, who spoke for a number of the participants, said she’d like to see the group continue to work together, potentially rallying around any number of worthy causes.

“This gives me such hope,” she said, noting that the WWE had been planning an essential-worker thank you effort on its own but decided instead to throw its weight behind “Real Heroes.” “This is a unique situation, and we all know that. But what if we could come together for critical messaging in the future?”

MLB svp of marketing Barbara McHugh thinks the marketers could help get youth sports back up and running after the coronavirus-forced hiatus, and Ellis said the execs could be advocates for returning physical education to schools.

As for “Real Heroes,” its architects don’t want it to be a project that captures the zeitgeist for a few days or weeks. Rather, they’d like to stoke it until and even after the country returns to some sense of normalcy.

Could the first day of game play, for instance, have athletes taking the field (or court or track) with doctors’ and nurses’ names emblazoned across their backs, or wearing various shades of blue in their uniforms? Could stadiums and rinks be bathed in blue light, mirroring the #LightItBlue tribute that’s enveloped monuments like the Empire State Building and the Seattle Space Needle?

Nascar, for one, has already committed to showcasing “The Real Heroes Project” in its return to racing on May 17 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. Cars will feature the program’s logo and hashtag, and the front-line heroes’ names will replace drivers’ names, which appear just above the drivers’ side windows.

“I hope that recognition will last beyond the pandemic,” said Skylar Diggins-Smith, a point guard for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. “I hope we honor them every day. We have to give people their flowers while they are with us.”

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.