The Comic Triumph of ‘This Is SportsCenter,’ a Campaign Years Ahead of Its Time

MullenLowe's Tim Vaccarino picks his three favorite ads ever

Advertisers today like to jump into the fray in social media with pithy insights and gags about current events. But ESPN has been doing that for decades, on television, long before Twitter or Facebook existed.

The cable sports network’s “This is SportsCenter” campaign, dreamed up by Wieden + Kennedy in the mid-1990s, has set the bar for topical comedy over the years with its droll set pieces inside a fantasy world where athletes and mascots live and work together with anchors and journalists at ESPN headquarters.

In our latest “Best Ads Ever” video (above), Tim Vaccarino of MullenLowe in Boston chooses “This Is SportsCenter” as one of his three favorite campaigns of all time—because of its broad appeal and always timely offbeat humor.

“There’s something there for everybody. It’s just so dead on and insightful,” Vaccarino says. “It’s a really cool fusion of the sports broadcasting world with the athletes and coaches and mascots.”

Adweek spoke at length with W+K and ESPN in 2012 about the campaign. The style, and even the name, were inspired by This Is Spinal Tap, the notorious 1984 rock mockumentary. Over the years, the campaign brought athletes humorously off the pedestal that Nike and other had put them on—giving them menial tasks, chatting with co-workers and enduring the endless small humiliations of office life.

“It’s the exact opposite of any Nike or Reebok commercial with these athletes, where they’re always at the peak of their performance and they’re doing things that are unbelievable,” W+K creative director Brandon Henderson told Adweek in 2012. “In these commercials, they’re making coffee or trying to unjam a printer.”

Here’s the very first “This Is SportsCenter” ad that started it all:

Vaccarino says now of the campaign: “It’s always timely and resonant. They were doing the stuff we’re doing now in social media when TV was social media. And I love the fact that it’s still banging away.”

After ESPN and W+K parted ways earlier this year after 25 years, the fate of “This Is SportsCenter” seemed up in the air. And indeed, there haven’t been any new spots in a few months. But ESPN told Adweek last week that the campaign will continue.

“‘This Is SportsCenter’ remains part of the brand and our relationship with fans,” the network said. “As important events, athletes and moments happen in sports, ‘TISC’ will continue to be part of our  communication.”

Among his other favorite campaigns, Vaccarino picked out the Guinness work of the late ’90s from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, particularly the “Surfer” spot (which Keith Cartwright of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners also chose recently in his “Best Ads Ever” video).

“It’s mesmerizing to me,” Vaccarino says. “It’s just a cinematic masterpiece. Really, really cool. Everything from the sound design, with this percussive track, leading to the imagery of the crashing wave and the stallions. It’s just a beautiful thing.”

Vaccarino, who has spent much of his career working on cars—most famously, he worked on Volkswagen’s “Pink Moon” spot at crosstown Boston shop Arnold—also picked an automotive campaign among his favorite ads. Like many other creative directors have in our “Best Ads Ever” series, he chose Honda “Grrr” by Wieden + Kennedy London.

“There was something about that piece that was really disruptive,” he says. “The fact that they took something that people were frustrated by, and angered with, and made it joyous and fun and beautiful. There’s something about Garrison Keillor’s voice, also, that I really love.”

Check out more from Vaccarino in the video above, in which he also talks about his recent celebrated work on MullenLowe’s JetBlue account.

Below, check out more recent “Best Ads Ever” clips. And see the full series here.