Thanks Mean Joe

The Prince Of Beverages
By Greg W. Prince

@@img1 ESPN is 25. This is not exactly a state secret. Never has a single media outlet made so much of its anniversary or itself. If you’ve turned on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS or ESPN Classic for so much as a Devil Rays score in the last 10 minutes, you’ll know a quarter-century has gone by since they put Bristol, Berman and Boo-Yah on the map.

And now I’m a tool of their relentless self-promotion. Please forgive me.

But I have my reasons for invoking the overwrought name of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network amid a forum for beverage expression. ESPN is running a series of “ESPN25” specials, countdowns of the 25 best or worst or most this or that of the past, you got it, 25 years. One of these shows has leaked into our little area of interest.

The network has listed the 25 best sports commercials of the ESPN epoch. By sports commercials, they mean television ads with a sports theme or star. Ten of those commercials, or 40 percent (statistics lend gravitas), were for beverages.

It breaks down this way:

Four are from Miller Lite.
One is from Budweiser.
Three are from Gatorade.
One is from 7 UP.
One is from Coca-Cola.

Now let’s break down the film.

If ESPN weren’t turning 25 (but, in case you haven’t heard, they are), it would not have occurred to this observer of sports and beverages to lump this passel of pitches together. They do not seem of a common period at all. Six of them are clearly of an earlier, less cynical era. Four of them first aired after 1990, three of those in the past few years.

The one Bud commercial, of recent Super Bowl vintage, is the spot in which the Clydesdales play football against each other. To be honest, I wouldn’t have remembered this one if you gave me a week to think about it. Budweiser is great at this sort of feelgood, cheeky in an inoffensive way advertisement, and for 30 to 60 seconds on any given Super Sunday, it gets your attention. But the rest of the year, these Clydesdale spots seem to sit in the stable. I do find it interesting that a company that made Bud Bowl a household phrase wasn’t remembered for any of those bottle battles in this survey.

The three Gatorade ads all star Michael Jordan. Or maybe those are three Michael Jordan ads that co-star Gatorade. The first, chronologically, is the “Be Like Mike” spot that announced his association with the only sports drink that matters (does anybody else recall that until 1991, Mike liked Coca-Cola Classic?). Believe it or not, it was controversial to call him Mike in some circles. One ad critic derided the tactic, that here was the most famous athlete in the world, brand name Michael Jordan, and you’re calling him Mike, though no one in sports does.

Mike seemed to do OK. As did Gatorade. The two later spots are the one in which he and Mia Hamm engage in an “Anything You Can Do” contest and another that stars the latter-day Washington Wizard versus the young Chicago Bull. I found the Jordan-on-Jordan spot kinda creepy, actually. With MJ showing up on the list for Nike and McDonald’s, one Jordan per commercial is plenty.

The pre-1990 commercials, the ancient artifacts, are a little more fascinating. Four of those are for Miller Lite, the Tastes Great, Less Filling campaign that began around 1974 and lasted into the late ’80s. It may be the best beer (and one of the best consumer product) efforts ever. TGLF launched light beer, made the low-cal concept palatable to manly beer drinkers and resonated as a catchphrase maybe too well-until Lite came up with its low-carb message, its sales were in virtual freefall for almost 15 years, suggesting it never developed an effective followup message.

The spots chosen from Lite featured billiards champion Steve Mizerak (wouldn’t know him if he poked me in the noggin with a cue); John Madden practically busting through the screen (before he endorsed everything that moved); Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith at the opera (brawny guys and culture-get it?); and the real charmer, Bob Uecker, insisting his seats must be in the front row. You couldn’t go to a ballgame for five years without hearing that line. It’s almost as funny after a hundred repeated hearings as the guy behind me who cries “I got it!” when a foul ball is hit within 400 feet of our section. But at the time, it cemented Uecker’s reputation as the self-effacing, ex-ballplayer for all time. It may have sold a few cases of Lite along the way, too.

None of those Lite commercials could be made today. The reason is ESPN. ESPN, like MTV, made everything move faster and appear a little racier. Those Lite ads were practically quaint. Funny old athletes grabbing a beer. Not nearly ironic enough for our detached times. The curse of Craig Kilborn now resides in the front row.

That leaves our two soft drink commercials, which in itself is a commentary on the past 25 years. Wouldn’t you think with all the sports sponsorships and sports celebrities intertwined with soft drink marketing that there would be more than two on this list (compiled by ESPN’s “expert panel,” FYI)? And wouldn’t you think one of them would have come along since ESPN was in its infancy?

Alas, the two commercials chosen from the bubbly water sector are almost as old as the all-sports network itself, each circa 1980. Sammy Sosa, LeBron James and anybody else current I’m missing, come back with something better for ESPN26.

As for what made it, there were Sugar Ray Leonard and son. Like America, they were turning 7 UP. Wow! I mean, wow! The expert panel did its homework to pay homage to this commercial, this brand and, for that matter, this sport. Is there a single, active boxer who could star in a national advertising campaign for anything today? The only fighter with any kind of Q rating is Mike Tyson, and would you want him around your adorable little boy, let alone your ice-cold 7 UP?

The No. 1 commercial on ESPN’s list is something that’s No. 1 on a lot of these types of lists: Mean Joe Greene drinking a Coca-Cola and tossing his jersey to the kid who offers him the soda. It was a Super Bowl spot before we knew there was such a thing, before ad meters took over the world on Super Monday.

Sugar Ray and Mean Joe had something in common, besides pounding pop on TV. They were discernible, unironic personalities, forged by actual athletic accomplishment, in a relatively sentimental age. The ads they starred in came off that way as well. No way we knew we were watching practically the last of their breed. They had swelling music and emotion and optimism, all on behalf of a little liquid refreshment. You just don’t see soft drink commercials like that anymore, certainly not with sports stars. Everything nowadays has a winking quality to it, which is kinda fun, like we’re in on the joke, but why does there always have to be a joke?

Probably because ESPN has been cutting up on the air for 25 years. Don’t get me wrong. I like ESPN. I like getting the Devil Rays score. Who doesn’t like SportsCenter? But we’ve lost something, and it’s filtered down to the way our beverages are sold to us.

Besides, if they tried that Mean Joe set-up in 2004, don’tcha think security would swoop in and grab that kid before he could get the Coke anywhere near his hero?

Greg W. Prince (prince@bevnet.com) has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.