How ESPN Navigated the Long Return to Sports in Its Advertising

Arts & Letters' blueprint for an unprecedented time

Last night, ESPN dropped an empowering message during Monday Night Football, seeking to reshape the conversation around women's sports. Themed "That's a W," the work marks an evolution of the female-focused espnW platform. It spotlights the vital role women athletes play across our culture as sports continue to return and flourish after taking a pandemic time-out.

"We want our fans to know that the brand represents all that motivates women to compete, reach their potential and be leaders in this world," says Laura Gentile, EVP, commercial marketing, at Disney Networks and ESPN. "We want our audience to recognize that a 'W' can be defined in so many inspiring ways, and that espnW is the home for telling those stories."

espnW | That's a W

At one point in the :60, boxer Claressa Shields channels Muhammad Ali by proclaiming herself "the greatest of all time." Later, former WNBA star Renee Montgomery enthuses over her ownership stake in the Atlanta Dream.

The approach continues a trend for ESPN and Arts & Letters Creative Co., the Richmond, Virginia, agency that has served as one of the cable network's primary creative partners for nearly three years. It adds to an ongoing effort to celebrate sports as an integral part of the contemporary landscape—a stance that echoes, amplifies and possibly drives advertising styles and themes from sundry leagues and brands.

"Not even a complete shutdown of sports, or games played in bubbles and empty arenas, can dampen fans' passion and insatiable appetite," Seth Ader, ESPN VP of brand marketing, tells Muse. "And while there were some dark days and scary times, we are now back with a vengeance. We will never again take sports for granted."

Such sentiments feel especially apt as we struggle to move beyond Covid times. Of course, sports have long provided R&R for the masses. We project ourselves onto the field of dreams, vicariously transcending the daily grind through every touchdown, home run and three-point play.

For much of 2020, however, sports vanished, leaving a void. Now, with stadiums again packed and screens springing to life with real-time action from venues across the globe, sports take on a deeper dimension.

The games we love "play an important leadership role in our society, and the last 18 months have shown that," says Emeka Ofodile, ESPN's VP of sports marketing. "We celebrate coming together, passion, equality and a focus on wellbeing and mental health. Sports can help us recover and heal from this pandemic."

In our conversation below, edited for clarity, key players from the client and agency explain the strategy behind their work and explore goals for the future.

Muse: When did you start strategizing for the return of games?

Hill Shore, business director, A&L: We started working on our first "return-of-sports" campaign the week sports shut down in March 2020. At the time, we assumed a great celebration with fans was imminent. The return wasn't nearly that quick or simple, and neither were the emotions tied to it.

Molly Jamison, creative director, A&L:  At the start of the pandemic, and with lots of uncertainty, we started on the "Ready for Football" kickoff campaign for the 2020-21 season. We weren't entirely sure what the return of the NFL season would look like. We knew that even in a normal year, the season kickoff is highly anticipated, let alone in a year in which sports fans had been deprived of live sports for months on end.

And only Céline Dion's epic 1996 take on Jim Steinman's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" was big enough to capture the moment?

Molly Jamison: We mapped the journey that fans were going to feel leading up to the season kickoff—from the despair of the season being gone, to wondering if the season was going to happen, to the joyous feeling of finding out football is back. Ideally, whatever song we chose would take you through that three-act journey emotionally and have lyrics that would resonate with fans and be a song that almost everyone knows. Someone at Arts & Letters suggested Céline Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," and everyone realized it was perfect.

NFL on ESPN: Ready for Football - It's All Coming Back to Us Now

The approach in making the spot was intentionally broad. Because of the uncertainty leading up to the season, we wanted to capture as much footage as we could and then use the edit to fully shape the idea. For the players, we sent a PDF document with the lyrics, a karaoke video, and instructions on how to film themselves. The footage we got back was incredible. We were able to grab time with some ESPN talent—Adam Schefter, Louis Riddick and Laura Rutledge—to film them lip-syncing remotely.

That was the boldest "Return of Sports" ad, to be sure, but there were others that delivered similar themes with different styles and textures.

Molly Jamison: With a series of spots for our brand campaign, we went on a journey—from "Believe" where we highlighted what we love most about sports beyond the field, to "And We're Back," celebrating the return of sports, to "No Matter What," where we focused on fans and all their creativity in making an unusual season memorable.

ESPN | Believe
ESPN | And We're Back
ESPN | No Matter What

N.J. Placentra, creative director, A&L: The key is to come at each of these briefs as a fan. What are we all feeling? What seems true and right for this time? You can't say "Sports are back!" over and over again. But you can remind people what they missed or what they can look forward to with each message.

But sports never really went away, right? In a sense, they were always there, bubbling under, even during lockdowns. Did that intensity inform your approach?

N.J. Placentra: When sports aren't on, sports fandom continues. But the longer we went without sports, the more we realized how much we missed them and how much of a role they played in our lives. Emotions were high, and the work had to reflect that. So, there was a sense of intensity in all the return-to-sports work we did, but that doesn't always mean intensely serious. It was lighthearted, sentimental, dramatic—all at the same time.

What's the evolution of that process?

N.J. Placentra: This year, we could really speak to the excitement and how big this season was going to feel with fans back in the stands. Fans are ready to celebrate again, so we made our commercial break out of the confines of a typical football commercial with our V.O. guy getting everyone ready for football live and in person.

ESPN | Ready for Football
For basketball, you employed a more driving style. Did you ratchet up the intensity because of the pandemic?

N.J. Placentra: The tone wasn't pandemic-specific, but tapped into what fans love about the NBA, in any season. We thought about how every year, the NBA is the best drama you can find anywhere—all the characters and twists and turns of a Marvel movie, played out on a court. The players are the real-life superheroes, and the season itself is a five-act drama. So, with each commercial, we kept all this in mind, making it feel cinematic and action-packed all while driving to this epic ending—the NBA Finals.

ESPN | It's Time
ESPN | Time Will Tell
ESPN | Finals Time
You've pushed hard on the mantra "There's No Place Like Sports." How do you define it now, as the games continue their comeback?

Hill Shore: Sports have returned as a steady progression, not a singular moment. We were without sports, then the NWSL led the first leagues in returning to the field, the NBA and WNBA bubbles came along with an almost-normal fall sports calendar, then fans started to ease back into stadiums. Only now are we seeing sports return to their full extent with roaring fans. The progression has been slow and complicated for fans, and full of unprecedented emotions. The campaign says, "There's No Place Like Sports," and with good reason. With the state of the sports world constantly in flux, we knew sports' uniqueness would shine through unlike anything else.

Peter Mulally, director, brand marketing, ESPN: Given the dynamics of schedules and realities of adjusted fan behaviors, we knew we had to be surgical with the tone and message of each execution. The campaign is the ultimate flex exercise. Every piece we did was a direct result of listening to fan sentiment at that particular moment.

Some viewers don't like equating sports, race and politics—but ESPN has memorably done so in recent months. Is it important for to touch on this reality moving forward?

Rachel Epstein, senior director, ESPN and espnW marketing: Counter to the notion of celebrating Black history and its intersection with sports through archival stories once a year, the "Black History Always" piece celebrates the truth that Black history and achievement is happening all around us, all the time, in sports and in every aspect of culture and society.

ESPN | Black History Always

Molly Jamison: Ignoring the social justice movement and the conversation and activism on its behalf in the football world would've been missing a huge part of the season and conversation.

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