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My top 10 sports adverts

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

It’s sacrilege I know, but I think people cheat on Desert Island Discs. There, I’ve said it. I don’t think they are honest about their favourite songs. I think they take one look at Lauren Laverne and panic that they are not cool or cultured enough. Their perfectly balanced list of songs - that always contains something classical/cultural, something nostalgic from their (often ‘wondrous’) childhood, something foreign, something achingly hipster - just seems too good to be true. Now I’m not suggesting you go ‘full Nile Rodgers’ (he selected five of his own songs - a legend in every sense) but I think it would be much more interesting and insightful (not to mention, fun) if the guests were a tad more truthful. I think if you looked on their Apple Music or Spotify at their most played, or even recently played, it would tell a VERY different story. This isn’t the music they would take on a deserted island, this is what they want you to think they would take on a deserted island. Why is there so much Gershwin? Why isn’t En Vogue, Don’t Let Go on everyone’s list?

So when I was asked to do a list of my top 10 sports ads, I wanted it to be as honest as humanly possible. The ads I’ve chosen are the ones I loved, and love. Not the coolest ones, not the ones that were most altruistic, or had the best cinematography or were most artistic - just the ones that entertain me, moved me, made me feel closer to the brand in some way, and ultimately, the ones I could remember. Longevity of memory structure is a hugely underrated criteria for a great ad I think. So, I've only listed ads that I could recall organically, and tried to resist the temptation of Googling "best sports ads!

I've also tried to keep my list to adverts that I first experienced as adverts in real life; in other words, I haven't come across them as case studies, award entrants, or best practice examples, but instead I’ve experienced them first hand on TV, cinema, pre-rolls or on social (I’ve focussed on films for ease of comparability).

Oh, but none can be my, or my agency’s adverts because, well, because I’m British, and that’s just not cricket. Unless, of course, you are Nile Rogers.

So, the following are my top 10 favourite sports ads, subject to the above criteria. I hope you enjoy them, but I’m sure, as one of the ads I’ve chosen so aptly puts it, ‘there will be haters’. In no particular order...

1. Nike, ‘Take it to the Next Level’

So we start with one of my favourite adverts ever. When thinking about Nike, I obviously considered ‘Write the Future’ – which is also excellent, but I just prefer the narrative, relatability, and craft of this spot. It was made to hijack the 2008 UEFA European Finals (Adidas were an official sponsor of the tournament) and it depicts the story of a Sunday League player ‘levelling up’, and going all the way to becoming an international - with all the perks and pitfalls of being a professional footballer - all shown in first person POV. Brilliantly directed by Guy Ritchie who adds as much edge as he does humour to the spot, and the Eagles of Death Metal track just means you know you’re in for a good time. Interestingly, it was created by 72and Sunny, and not W+K, perhaps showing there is hope for us in all in terms of one day working with ‘the swoosh’. A great ad with the outtake for the amateur footballer being, “chose Nike and you might just take your game to the next level”.

2. Sport England, ‘This Girl Can’

*2 million fewer women than men regularly exercise regularly, but 75% of women want to exercise regularly.

This brilliant campaign set out to, and did, (to what degree depends on your source) change that. A breakthrough ad for Kim Gehrig, famed for the honesty and wit in her (often female focussed) work, and the track from Missy Elliot (the first time she had allowed her work to be used for commercial purposes) elevates it to elite status - I love everything about it. It’s a right kick in the stereotypes.

3. Puma - ‘Hard Chorus’

What do you do when it’s Valentines day and there are key FA Cup clashes to be played? This is what you do. Superbly casted and produced by Knucklehead and Ben Gregor - genius from Droga5. I find it just mesmerising.

4. Adidas Football - ‘There will be Haters’

An absolute “beaut” from Adidas, who made the most of having a slightly second string group of player ambassadors, all of whom were slightly controversial in some way (they made an individual version of the ad with Messi but it was rubbish, probably because nobody ‘hates’ him). It’s a cracker overall, and it won a host of awards - but the cleverness was that it trolled the trolls, and gave everyone a simple rebuff to any online vitriol. Post production and animation by Sauvage is pivotal to the spot, as, if you watch carefully, they do a wonderful job of creating interest around the players’ relatively limited acting skills. The voiceover is absolute perfection - you’ll be saying ‘shiny new boooots’ all day now.

5. Reebok, ‘Belly’

So disruptive, so memorable - and overall so un-Nike and un-Adidas, great challenger brand stuff from Reebok. It caught the imagination, so much so that people asked Reebok if they could buy ‘bellies’. Extraordinary. The follow up ad, ‘Escape the Sofa’ is also great, but for some reason doesn’t quite stick in the mind so much, perhaps because the sofa was a lot less threatening than an 8ft latex engorged stomach with prosthetic hairs and moles. The sound design is obviously terrifying, and possibly the only surprise is that ‘Belly’s Gonna Get you’ wasn’t Christmas number 1 in 2000. The copy is also wonderful, the bridging line brilliantly embedded into to the sole of the protagonists trainer (Reebok, obviously) - ‘lose the beer belly’ (at which point people then completely understand the previous 30 seconds of horror) - but I also love how this fits so seamlessly with the master brand line at the time ‘whatever your goal’ - targeting the everyman. Perfection.

6. Paralympics on Channel 4, ‘Meet the Superhumans’

I think there is always that advert you wish you made. A legacy ad. An ad so good you never need to make another one again. A mike-drop of an ad. And perhaps the ad I most wish I had made is this one. You thought the summer of 2012 couldn’t get any better, the Olympics had been incredible - and then Channel 4 dropped this and all of a sudden the world understood, connected with, and found inspiration from the Paralympics and Paralympians.

The gritty cinematography, and Public Enemy track are awe-inspiring, but it’s the clever interweaving of the back stories to the athletes that I love the most - reminiscent of the way Marvel or DC would narrate how superhero acquired their powers. 4Creative, you are the in-house agency by which all others must be judged.

7. Umbro - ‘Goalposts’

Well done Fallon, but also well done Umbro for buying it. Memorising, haunting, hilarious, and not a call to action (or even tagline) in sight, and the final scene landing on Minnie Ripperton’s falsetto is just a delight.

8. Sky Sports. - A whole new ball game

The OG. Perhaps the first ad I watched and thought, that is amazing, I want to watch that again.

Has it aged well? No. Was the shower scene horribly misjudged? Almost certainly. Do I ever want to see Anders Limpar being served breakfast in bed ever again? Absolutely not. But, do I smile inanely during the whole thing? Without question. Back of the net.

9. Adidas Rugby - Last Man Standing

The Lions and the All Blacks play a game of British bulldog, we film it’ - Creative Director Andy Fackrell of 180 Amsterdam must have enjoyed that pitch. Three minutes of pure joy, followed by one of the greatest taglines ever.

10. Lucozade Sport Anthony Joshua, Made to Move

I feel like Lucozade ads have really been hit or miss over the years, and you’d think they’d have had more hits than they’ve actually had. However, this spot in 2017 from Grey via Smuggler, I absolutely love. It tells the life story of Anthony Joshua in 90 seconds, through perpetual motion left to right - as part of Lucozade Sports ‘Made to Move' campaign. The camera work and edits give the viewer the sense that we are riding shotgun as AJ whizzes through the ups and downs of his route to become heavyweight champion of the world. The baby’s legs almost ‘jabbing’, the electronic tag scene, and how laying bricks transforms to become landing punches are all standout moments. The end-line and ‘eyes to camera’ moment at the end have been regarded by some as a little cheesy - I disagree, I find this a both haunting and brilliant ending in equal measure.

Notable mentions

BT SPORT - The New Home of the Champions league This so nearly made the list, the idea is brilliant, the track is brilliant (a great Desert island Disc from Lethal Bizzle), the execution is brilliant, the line is brilliant - it is just spoilt by the ending, where they chose to in some way bring in it in line with characters from BT’s campaign of the moment, which rather kills the timelessness of it.

Adidas - Kick it Made before content was even a thing, this is some of the best content I have ever seen. Interesting that this ran on TV, whereas today this would perhaps feel more at home on social media. Nike - Make Every Yard Count Despite my very best efforts, still the coolest cricket ad on the block.

Coca Cola - Where everyone plays Love almost everything about this, apart from the end-line - which makes absolutely no sense, to anyone, anywhere, at all. Even Jermaine Jenas as a piece of battered cod getting vinegar in his eye makes more sense that that tag line. Apart from that - wonderful. Matt Campbell is the Executive Creative Director of MATTA.

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