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"Sometimes I Dream…": The WNBA & Corporate Advertising

The WNBA’s newest Expect Great ads have a much more positive tone than the original set, but still fall short of really grabbing me.

Whereas the first ads posed a challenge to doubters, the latest sort of embrace those that already believe in the league by trying to capture the players’ competitiveness. So while I appreciate the underlying message of the original ads, the new commercials
are much more aesthetically pleasing…and that counts for something if we have to sit through them 10+ times a game.

However, there’s still something missing – these ads fail to "draw me in" so to speak. They’re positive but not provocative; thoughtful but dispassionate. The tone is more pleasant, but still uninspiring. And anybody who’s seen Taurasi in interviews before knows she has more personality than that.

So then – as I’m prone to do – I asked myself a basic question in hopes of illuminating what these commercials lack: what makes a sports commercial memorable?

If there’s some winning formula for great commercials out there, can the WNBA use it to enhance their ads?

After some thought, I realized that every single one of my favorite commercials were great not because I remember the content, but how the content made me feel. I’m not sure where I’m going with these thoughts, but right now, I get nothing out of the Expect Great commercials as a consumer.

Back Down Consumerism Lane

The commercials that stand out in my mind are the ones that my friends and I would joke about or imitate on the court the next day. Somehow the content struck a chord with our own delusions of basketball grandeur, gave us something new to clown around about, or perfectly captured why we would spend three hours playing basketball in the rain or 98 degree weather (I did that one time much to my mother’s dismay. I nearly killed myself...for the love of the game).

So as I probed my memory I did a quick web search and came up with some of the absolutely most memorable commercials -- the ones that we would replay in our minds even after they were no longer on the air because they hit on something special. And of course the first thing that came to mind was not the commercials, but the punch lines:

"Like Mike."..."Grant Hill drinks Sprite."..."Is it the shoes?"..."I’m not a role model."...Failure...Overjoyed...The squeaking of sneakers on a basketball court… Some of these commercials became part of basketball culture at their height. They managed to capture the very essence of what I enjoy about basketball. Dreaming. The spotlight. Winning. Losing.

And then I realized something else: they were all corporate product ads.

Sure, the NBA had all those "FAN-tastic" and "I love this game" ads, but not one of those stands out in my mind. It would seem that the best marketing for the NBA was showcasing their stars as a means to get me to buy someone else’s product. In thirty seconds you can’t convince me to watch the NBA, but you can convince me that somehow watching these players compete will feed my love of the game…and my thirst.

Should the WNBA’s branding involve endorsing someone else’s brand?

It’s pretty well documented that a major part of the NBA’s branding process was putting its players out there to endorse other products, most notably sneakers. I remember the disdain I felt for my parents when they wouldn’t buy me have a pair of L.A. Gear shoes that * gasp * Karl Malone endorsed… oh how foolish I was in my youth. But the other thing is that these major corporations will pour money into these ads, which is essential.

Those early sneaker ads were great. Nike has some of the most brilliant ads ever, hands down, in any industry (I have to give credit to Budweiser though – the Bud Bowl, the frogs, and Wazzup/"True" ads are undoubtedly classics). It seemed as though anything Michael Jordan was in was destined for greatness.

And Sprite’s Grant Hill ads were great too. I mean anytime we saw someone in high school miss a dunk or layup, we’d pull out the ol’ Grant Hill drinks sprite. Gatorade struck gold with "Like Mike" even as I try to play it off as too cheesy now.

Nike has had a few ads with WNBA athletes, but I’m not talking about clips of people working out or "little rascals" giving Lisa Leslie new plays on notebook paper (though those were funny). I’m talking about something that reminds me why I love basketball to begin with. The punchline I can use to clown my friends when they do something silly.

And the music was huge too.

I bet there's a good number of people about my age who are able to repeat that "Like Mike" song verbatim. Because hey, everyone on the court wanted to be like Mike.

The most memorable commercials use the music perfectly to evoke exactly the feeling they want me to feel. The Expect Great commercials make me feel like someone just broke up with me over the phone on a rainy day. This is basketball… not a Hugh Grant movie. Why not try leaving me with the impression the WNBA is going to evoke pleasant feelings?

Give me a hero to root for or a villain to root against…but don’t leave me indifferent. Candace Parker is the most marketable WNBA athlete around and she has a contract with Addidas…where are the Addidas ads? Don’t they still need to sell shoes?

It’s not a bad strategy the NBA employed: branding the league by promoting players who endorse the things we love. I know, all that consumerism feels yucky to me too… but the WNBA is trying to sell a product first and foremost.

Advertise Light

Actually, the very first commercial that popped into my mind was only a vague memory, but it is by far the sports commercial that resonated with me most. I wish I could find a clip of it, but I can’t even remember the product. In fact, it didn’t even promote the NBA…it was just a great basketball commercial.

A kid was alone on a court imagining a scenario where he’s got the ball at the top of the key with a few seconds left and his team down by 1. He gives a running play by play as he makes a few moves, then says, "He shoots…" in anticipation of the game winning shot and misses. As the ball falls to the asphalt, he stands completely still deep in thought. Then his eyes light up and he looks up and yells, "He was fouled!" as he grabs the ball and heads to the free throw line for his imagined second chance (no word on whether the game went into overtime…my imagined games would if necessary).

Simple, yet beautiful.

The WNBA’s current ad campaign lacks the passion, imagination, and emotion – and even the childhood innocence -- that make sports absolutely great. I understand that the league is not at all in the same position as the NBA and thus their marketing strategy has to be different.

But instead of trying to spur a cognitive shift in expectations about women’s basketball, why not make me feel great about the prospect of watching women’s basketball? Why not find a way to remind us why we spend time watching (and blogging about) the sports we love in the first place?

Transition Points:

  • I can’t remember many of the early WNBA commercials at all. I know Nike did some a few years back to promote a women’s line of clothes, but I can’t remember the slogan…
  • I still think Bob Ryan might be on to a good campaign theme with "The Game You're Missing."
  • I actually think one of the best basketball commercials ever made was the "What is Love?" Michael Jordan commercial. I never actually saw it on TV which is why it doesn’t stand out in my memory, but it was nicely done…if long.
  • I didn’t just write a top ten commercials list because those have been done before…and here they are: ESPN… Hoops Dojo blog… Sports Matters blog…
  • Does anyone else think Diana Taurasi could pull off a commercial similar to ones Grant Hill did for Sprite? I do.
  • I dismissed the early NBA commercials, but those FAN-tastic commercials are fun to look back at now… this one even has Danny Ainge the player in it.
  • NBA Draft was crazy...and on at the same time as the WNBA I'll have to watch those today. Yes, the draft is that important to me...