Adweek Exclusive: How the Sports World United to Honor the Pandemic’s ‘Real Heroes’

72andSunny's historic campaign features star athletes from the NFL, the Women’s Tennis Association, Electronic Arts and more

'The Real Heroes Project' athletes holding up jerseys
'The Real Heroes Project' unites more than a dozen professional sports leagues and brands to honor the country’s front-line medical workers.
Images: 72andSunny; Lettering: Dianna McDougall

One of the WWE’s highest-profile superstars, John Cena, has made a career of being self-referential, in the cheekiest way, often showing up for matches in T-shirts with his own face plastered across his impressively ripped chest.

But today he’s pumping up someone else instead: Dr. Evan Shannon, an internist and young father who’s working nearly around the clock caring for Covid-19 victims at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The switch will come as part of an unprecedented joint public service announcement that breaks this week.

“The Real Heroes Project” campaign unites for the first time 14 powerhouse professional sports leagues, from the NFL and Nascar to the Women’s Tennis Association and Electronic Arts, and features their marquee talent celebrating the country’s front-line medical workers by turning over their most precious real estate: their jerseys (and hoodies, racing suits and polos).

The pro athletes, including NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz, World Cup soccer winner Carli Lloyd and esports heavyweight Mohammed “MoAuba” Harkous, will replace the name on their jersey with that of a doctor, nurse or EMT fighting the pandemic. Taking to their social channels today with the hashtag #TheRealHeroes, they’ll post video tributes to these lives-on-the-line workers and break into a standing ovation.

Viewers will be able to watch the process, all captured remotely via user-generated clips from iconic athletes’ homes, in a two-minute video set to debut Wednesday from Los Angeles agency 72andSunny and production partner Hecho Studios.

“We’re taking people who are normally revered as heroes and having them become the fans,” says Glenn Cole, 72andSunny’s founder and creative chair. “We’re giving these front-line individuals the hero treatment.”

The effort itself is unique, produced under lockdown conditions in less than a month from concept to finished spot, as is the executive group behind it, which Activision Blizzard Esports CMO Daniel Cherry III likens to “the sports business equivalent of the Avengers” operating with “no ego, just heart.”

Normally competitors, often battling head to head for consumers’ attention, the marketing chiefs aligned to “do whatever we could to salute all those human souls who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” says WTA president Micky Lawler.

Brought together by Adweek, and led by chief community officer Nadine Dietz, who EA CMO Chris Bruzzo calls “the critical convener,” the leaders Zoomed and Slacked their way to “The Real Heroes Project” while dealing with the widespread, business-crippling impact of the coronavirus on their live events.

“The sports marketing world has never come together for an effort like this before,” notes NFL CMO Tim Ellis. “If not now, when?”

With the mini-movie, the execs hope to spark a movement that will blossom through the sports ecosystem and catch on with the sports-loving public, lasting far beyond the shelter-at-home present into the return-to-play future.

Here’s how they pulled off “The Real Heroes Project,” from its seeding just weeks ago to its fruition on National Nurses Week, which begins May 6.

WWE superstar John Cena celebrates Dr. Evan Shannon.

‘Moments of unification’

Around mid-March, when local and state governments issued shelter-at-home orders, Dietz was reaching out to senior-level execs, many of whom had taken part in Adweek’s CMO Moves podcast and industry events like Brandweek, asking if they’d participate in group chats. The goal was to give them an open forum to discuss the disruption to their businesses and share ways they were navigating the early-stage crisis.

From there, sports marketers broke into their own subset to talk about their particular challenges like interrupted and canceled seasons, scrapped playoffs and delayed opening days. Dietz set up a weekly Zoom call and a dedicated Slack channel, which started with a handful of sports execs and quickly grew as participants invited others to join. Any topic, from staffing and human resources to anxiety and personal hardships, was fair game, which Bruzzo says created “moments of unification.”

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