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
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

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.”

The virtual discussions covered logistics like best practices and crisis response. But what emerged almost immediately, from what felt to Cherry like “therapeutic counseling sessions among colleagues who respect each other,” was an interest in collaborating on something completely new.

A Zoom call connecting sports execs, the first of which was convened by Adweek chief community officer Nadine Dietz (bottom row, far left), helped spark the campaign.

“Hearing each other’s personal stories about leading through uncertainty made us feel connected on a whole new level,” says NHL CMO Heidi Browning, who first suggested a PSA that would span multiple leagues.

While most had already kicked off philanthropy programs separately, everyone understood that the collective could have next-level influence, says NBA CMO Kate Jhaveri. “It was either in the first or second call, we recognized we’d have greater impact by coming together.”

Fans look to sports for escapism, Ellis says, but also expect to see corporate responsibility on display from those brands. Any project would need to fit that bill, and the focus right away became rallying around front-line medical personnel.

U.S. women’s soccer star Carli Lloyd

“Everyone knows that sports can inspire and give people hope,” says Barbara McHugh, MLB’s svp, marketing. “The sentiment from the group was that we should lean into that.”

What developed organically was a kind of hive mind, with National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird saying, “From the start, everyone was all in.” Even so, with as many as two dozen or more execs involved, the project needed a coordinator, with Browning acknowledging that “most of us did not have the bandwidth to manage internally.”

Ellis stepped forward as the point person (Cole calls him “a great midfield general”), with an assist from Browning, and in short order recruited 72andSunny. The agency had just turned around the NFL’s massive #StayHomeStayStrong campaign in about six days.

Ellis didn’t know initially if the agency would take the pro bono assignment, since it was knee-deep in pivoting its Smirnoff work (changing from a summer party theme to #HangOutFromHome) and launching Trojan’s “Sexplore at Home With Confidence” and Adobe’s artist-powered #HonorHeroes.

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky

Even with everything on its plate, including coronavirus-related layoffs that have swept the agency world, Cole didn’t hesitate.

“I just about jumped through the phone with a ‘Hell, yes!’’ insisting it could be nobody else,” Cole recalls. “I called my team and said there’s a historic opportunity in front of us.”

Avoiding the trope trap

David Bruce, Major League Soccer’s svp, brand and integrated marketing, was among the chorus of execs asking, “What would our message look like?”

Cole and his team, aiming to avoid what Ellis calls the cliché-riddled “sea of sameness” in Covid-19 advertising, put their heads together over a weekend and devised the plan of having pro athletes replace their own names on their jerseys with the names of medical workers.

“That’s the ultimate honor,” says Ellis. “And it’s clear and compelling and felt unique.”

Bruce latched onto the idea of “flipping the mirror,” and Cherry thought it was “the best and most respectful gesture at a time when it’s important for us to humble ourselves and just say thank you.”

Cole, who has Nike and Adidas work in his background, wanted to “fill the emotional gap” in the media landscape. He also thought the concept would appeal to elite athletes accustomed to pushing themselves beyond their limits, just as healthcare workers are doing every day in dire circumstances.

“The jersey idea is very sticky and very replicable,” Cole says. “And it will give these workers what fans normally give to us: love, support, a pedestal, a platform.”

Calls went out from each league to their sports stars, with hands raising instantly. Within days, the agency sent a brief to more than two dozen athletes, telling them step by step how to complete the challenge and document it in a homemade video. They could include their families, and they need not worry about backdrops, makeup or styling, according to the document.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins

The execution would be consistent, no matter the sport or the competitive gear (some athletes wear tank tops or spandex instead of jerseys and cleats). The athletes were told to use any kind of tape they had lying around to cover their names and write over them with Sharpies (or crayons or paint sticks). The video also needed to include a personal tribute and an energetic cheer for the front-line heroes.

As that outreach was taking place, the agency’s researchers, creatives and in-house production teams gathered stories and on-the-job footage of medical workers (for any athlete who needed to be connected), laid out a break-neck timetable, set up a video drop and prepped for editing the pieces they’d receive from each sports brand.

For the pro talent, it would be a decidedly stripped-down approach, with no real-time direction. Bruce says the “DIY aesthetic, real and raw” appealed to everyone in the group, with WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon thinking the unpolished clips could be “more effective, more genuine—it will show that we’re all just real people.”

The jacket of WWE’s Charlotte Flair

“There won’t be perfect lighting or perfectly dressed environments,” says Alex Chang, CMO, San Francisco 49ers. “We’re worried less about the production value and more about the message. It just needs to come from the heart.”

The PSA is also intended to supply an adrenaline rush, sorely missing while there are few live sports shows to watch. Athletes, like the playfully self-deprecating Cena, were told to let their personalities shine.

“The Real Heroes Project” is purposely streamlined, without fundraisers or other extensions attached. Early conversations did broach that possibility, McHugh says, but participants decided on “a single, simple message” that could work alongside every league’s existing and extensive relief efforts (see sidebar).

Gratitude in any language

Though the group began with reps from traditional sports like hockey, basketball and baseball, leaders quickly widened the net to include the WWE, esports and other brands.

There are about 3 billion reasons for that—3 billion being the combined social media reach of all 12 participating groups, their teams and players, per Statista. Many of those athletes are famous not just in the U.S. but around the world, representing different age demos, backgrounds and ethnicities.

Los Angeles Galaxy forward Javier 'Chicharito' Hernández

Diversity was always key to the campaign, starting with the CMO group itself, with its combination of C-suite women, people of color and men. And the anthem video, by design, features a similar mix of stars, including the WNBA’s Skylar Diggins-Smith, the WWE’s Charlotte Flair, and millennials Aaron Judge (New York Yankees) and DeAndre Hopkins (Arizona Cardinals).

Some of the clips will be translated from the athletes’ native language. Los Angeles Galaxy forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernández will speak Spanish, and the first female grand master champion of esports’ Hearthstone, Li “VKLiooon” Xiaomeng, will speak Chinese.

The inclusive lineup “ensures that we’ll engage a critical young audience,” Ellis says. “It also shows a sense of modernity.”

Each league chose its own athletes, looking for “recognizable and relatable” stars, Chang says, including those who had personal relationships with front-line workers (some are siblings, partners and close family friends).

The snowball effect

In a two-minute piece, there are only so many stars who can be packed in. The video, though, is only the beginning of what the leagues hope will be a storytelling movement that spans every level of sports, from professional level to neighborhood kickball or children’s T-ball, and any player or fan.

“We think it could have a snowball effect,” says McHugh. “It would be a great DIY project for families that are home.”

Ellis sees colleges, high schools and youth leagues as potential hot spots to spread the gratitude message, with the anthem PSA serving as a way to “prime the pump—we want to keep the positivity and recognition going.”

2014 Nascar Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick

Each league will use its considerable resources to disseminate “The Real Heroes.” For instance, WWE alone has a worldwide following that’s somewhere north of 1 billion. And after being declared an “essential business” by Florida’s governor, it’s one of the only sports entertainment properties still producing live, televised shows, planning to hype “The Real Heroes Project” across broadcast and cable channels, McMahon says.

“We all see this as an opportunity to do something meaningful and impactful when it’s needed most and to show the strength and scale we could deliver when united around one message and cause,” says Jill Gregory, evp, CMO of Nascar, which will promote “The Real Heroes Project” in its virtual iRacing simulations.

Marketers, whose dedication to data remains hardwired, will track the reach of the campaign, looking for “the broadest possible audience,” says Bruzzo, but also judging by “the quality of the stories we’re telling—we want these heroes to get the recognition they deserve.”

Lawler, whose grandfather was a pro soccer star and activist, says there are times, like now, for sports leagues to show that they’re “much more than commercial properties that sell a lot of tickets and win trophies and championships,” she says. “It’s about a lot more than the ball.”

Athletes altered their jerseys DIY-style.
Click to enlarge

The ‘Real Heroes’ Roster

Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP)

  • Robert Charles “Bob” Bryan and Michael Carl “Mike” Bryan, professional doubles tennis players and most successful duo of all time

Major League Soccer (MLS)

  • Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, forward, Los Angeles Galaxy
  • Jozy Altidore, forward, Toronto FC and U.S. Men’s National Team
  • Nani, forward and captain, Orlando City SC

National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL)

  • Carli Lloyd, forward, United States women’s national soccer team and Sky Blue FC
  • Alex Morgan, striker, United States women’s national soccer team and Orlando Pride

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)

  • Superstars John Cena, Triple H and Charlotte Flair, current NXT Women’s Champion

National Basketball Association (NBA)

  • Donovan Mitchell, point guard, Utah Jazz

EA Sports

  • esports athletes MSDossary, Drini, Moauba, Snip3down, Monsoon (not pictured)

Activision Blizzard Esports

  • esports athletes Seth “Scump” Abner (Call of Duty League), Li “Liooon” Xiaomeng (Hearthstone Esports) and Matthew “Super” DeLisi (Overwatch League)

Major League Baseball (MLB)

  • Aaron Judge, outfielder, New York Yankees
  • Christian Yelich, outfielder, Milwaukee Brewers


  • Kyle Busch, two-time and defending Nascar Cup
    Series champion
  • Kevin Harvick, full-time driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in the Nascar Cup Series

National Football League (NFL)

  • Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans Saints
  • DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver, Arizona Cardinals
  • George Kittle, tight end, San Francisco 49ers

Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA)

  • Skylar Diggins-Smith, guard, Phoenix Mercury
  • Breanna Stewart, forward, Seattle Storm

National Hockey League (NHL)

  • Wayne Gretzky, Hall of Famer
  • Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks captain
  • Hayley Wickenheiser, assistant director of player development, Toronto Maple Leafs, and former Canadian women’s ice hockey gold medalist

Women’s Tennis Association (WTA)

  • Bianca Andreescu, highest-ranked Canadian tennis player in the history of the WTA
  • Ashleigh Barty, WTA No. 1 ranked in singles
  • Naomi Osaka, two-time Grand Slam singles champion
  • Coco Gauff, WTA’s youngest player ranked in the top 100
  • Victoria Azarenka, the only Belarusian player, male or female, to win a Grand Slam singles title

United States Golf Association (USGA)

  • Lydia Ko, winner of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur and youngest No.1 ranked player of all time
@TLStanleyLA 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.