If the debut of yesterday’s new SportsCenter commercial starring Metallica taught us anything, it’s that ESPN still knows how to make us laugh. Even as a lot of us who grew up watching SportsCenter and the network’s other shows have grown tired of the “Embrace Debate” nonsense, sports personalities who think they’re bigger than athletes (*cough, Michael Wilbon, cough*) and ESPN simply wrapping its powerful hands around our throats and choking us to death with LeBron James and Tim Tebow news, the “This is SportsCenter” ad campaign is something that makes almost everyone smile. And what’s truly remarkable about it all is that this year marks 20 years of the same gimmick going strong and rarely ever losing steam.
Started in 1994, the “This is SportsCenter” campaign was created to introduce us to ESPN’s top personalities from its long-running sports news series by combining their faux-behind-the-scenes antics with hilarious interactions with some of the biggest athletes in all of professional sports. It began with an introductory commercial from Bob Ley, and soon we had guys like Keith Olbermann, Craig Kilborn and Dan Patrick making us believe that a studio in Bristol, Connecticut was the coolest place on Earth.
Obviously, superstar athletes and SportsCenter anchors would come and go, but the theme always remained the same, and the commercials have remained the funniest on TV… especially those with hilarious and adorable mascots. I tried to pick a Top 20 off the top of my head and before I knew it, I had 32 commercials written down. Unfortunately, my immediate choice for No. 1, Adam Vinatieri and Jim Kelly walking through a metal detector together, was nowhere to be found on YouTube. But after realizing that ESPN readily keeps more than 100 “This is SportsCenter” commercials on its YouTube channel, I voted 1-0 in favor of no ranking. I’d rather just enjoy the hell out of something that I’ve always loved.
Keith Olbermann’s Pan Flute
Like most people, I was always pretty upset when Keith Olbermann left the world of sports broadcasting to take on cable news dipshittery, especially because he had such a commanding presence and powerful charm in his SportsCenter heyday. And even as he has since moved out of the political dumpster to sit in the gutter of hot sports takes (although he still does it better than most people), nothing will ever top his pan flute.
“Follow Me to Freedom!”
If I’m a gambling man, I’d wager that this 1999 spot is the commercial that most people think of when talking about old SportsCenter commercials. Mark McGwire bashing a computer with his bat like a caveman is just so… perfect.
Remember Lance Armstrong?
Long before he’d become Public Enemy No. 1 of both the cycling world and America in general, Lance Armstrong was just an incredible freak of nature and a hero to millions, as he’d overcome cancer to become the most dominant champion in Tour de France history. People who haven’t thrown away their LiveStrong bracelets will always have this early SportsCenter commercial.
There was Roger Clemens, Too
Speaking of semi-disgraced former star athletes, Roger Clemens once stopped by to throw a guy whose name I can’t remember against a wall. It’s funny because Clemens always threw really hard.
ESPN Clearly Had a Problem with PEDs
Between Armstrong and Clemens in early commercials and all of the embarrassing performance-enhancing drug use in actual sports, it was only right that SportsCenter eventually poked a little fun at cheaters by accusing Scott Van Pelt of juicing his brain.
The Overseas Markets
What’s remarkable about these ads, though, is looking at an old one like this that was as simple as a few costume changes, and then comparing it to a recent commercial that clearly had the backing of the parent company.
Everyone Loves Star Wars
The funny thing is that I’ll still take the charm of the old ads that simply reveal the personalities of the anchors over the fancy costumes and nostalgic gimmicks any day. After all, the whole point of the campaign was to pretend that we were getting some sort of VIP access to Bristol, which is why the best commercials always featured the guys like us.
Inside the Locker Room
Kenny Mayne was the best before his humor became too dry and obscure. Perhaps that’s the only drawback of turning the reporters into stars. Clearly, some of these guys have let the fame get to their heads over the years, but a lot of them still seem like they’d pull up a stool next to us at the bar and rap about baseball over a round of potato skins.
John Clayton is a Metalhead
And then there’s John Clayton, a personality that simply never seemed like he fit in with the Bristol Bros, like his one-time cohort Sean Salisbury. This awesome commercial reminded us, though, that Clayton is rad while Salisbury was always a ‘bag, and that’s why only one of them is still feeding us NFL news on ESPN.
“Just Play the Game, Plumber Boy”
The classics should be preserved better than this, if only so we can remember that at one point in time, Craig Kilborn was a national treasure.
This might have been the best SportsCenter commercial ever made. It’s a shame that ESPN doesn’t have a better quality version of it on the YouTube channel, but I’m glad that it still exists somewhere. In fact, give me a classic ESPN commercials YouTube channel, too, because some of the early athlete ads should not be forgotten.
Gordie Howe’s a Tough Guy
The humor of “This is SportsCenter” has developed into fans being able to watch their favorite athletes performing ordinary tasks in an office setting, all while using their skills to their advantages. But early on, between Clemens and Gordie Howe, it was more about tough guys beating up the nerds, which is basically America’s pastime.
LeBron’s Office Throne
ESPN’s ad team got a break when LeBron James announced his return to Cleveland last week, because they got to bring this classic out of the archives for another spin. It was a fitting end to several weeks of SportsCenter’s “All LeBron, All the Time” programming.
Kobayashi Eats Fast
Even a professional eating champion like Takeru Kobayashi stopped by Bristol for a quick lunch, and boy do they mean quick! It’s because he was a professional competitive eater, you see. ESPN really should make a new Kobayashi commercial that features him competing in underground eating contests to mock his ban from the mainstream events.
Hip, Hip Jorge!
So simple and yet so funny. Jorge Posada would end up being the star of not one, but two of the best “This is SportsCenter” spots, although he was third fiddle to the stars of his other commercial.
David Ortiz is a Yankee
Poor Wally. Although, I’m relieved that Sox fans didn’t eventually hang Wally from the Green Monster for taking part in something that featured such an offense as a Red Sox player wearing a Yankees cap. There’s no room for humor in the most intense rivalry in all of sports.
The Manning Family Vacation
It’s always nice to see a family of star athletes stop taking everything so seriously and have a little fun for once, even if we all basically know that Peyton Manning actually wants to repeatedly stab Eli in the hands for having more Super Bowl rings than he does.
Michael Phelps is Dumb
It’s funny because Michael Phelps is always swimming and therefore wet, but a better commercial might have been Phelps sitting on the kitchen floor raiding everyone’s snack packs with a group of other stoner athletes like Ricky Williams and Rasheed Wallace.
Albert Pujols is a Machine
Albert Pujols used to be the best baseball player in the world and people in St. Louis called him nicknames like “The Machine” and “El Hombre.” Then, he switched uniforms and now I don’t even know if he plays baseball anymore. I think he retired to explore the secret of his real age.
Henrik Lundqvist and the New Chef
Fun fact: If you put any Muppet in a commercial, I will immediately love it. If you put the Swedish Chef in a commercial, I will watch it a million times and giggle endlessly each time like it’s my first viewing.
Landon Donovan’s Copy Machine Outburst
Once upon a time, Landon Donovan was more than just an ESPN World Cup analyst who sorely needed to work on his charisma and on-screen presence. He was an American soccer hero who inspired laughs in this simple yet fantastic SportsCenter ad.
Abby Wambach, Too
Long before soccer flopping became a cable news trolling point for American exceptionalism, it was just something that people liked to make fun of. This commercial is 100 percent accurate.
Alex Ovechkin is a Spy
As the rest of the world drifts toward a new Cold War, so does ESPN’s ad team. Personally, I would have preferred the stereotype that Russians can drink more or they fight bears for fun, but I’m always a sucker for some good, old-fashioned espionage.
Rafael Nadal is Handsome
Did you know that tennis god Rafael Nadal is considered to be quite attractive by females all over the world? Well, it turns out that he’s cheating and using his own sort of enhancements to steal women from the rest of us.
Brian Wilson’s Beard is Terrifying
One of the scariest movie scenes that I can remember from my childhood had Pee Wee Herman listening to Large Marge tell the story of a twisted, burning wreck, before her face exploded into that of a monster’s. This Brian Wilson spot sort of reminds me of that, but it’s more like the scene from Beetlejuice that doesn’t reveal just how scary the face is. I guess it’s better for people who appreciate suspense.
Floyd Mayweather Has a Problem with Brian Kenny
Fighters of all shapes and sizes have appeared in SportsCenter ads, including boxing legend Floyd Mayweather showing off his intimidating fists of fury, and Christy Martin was even the love of Charlie Steiner’s life.
He probably needed her around to hold off Evander Holyfield.
This is Better than a NOS Commercial
Former UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre also once dared his ESPN coworkers to step into the octagon with him.
King Kong Bundy’s Big Moment
Despite the fact that ESPN doesn’t routinely cover the world of sports entertainment, some of the WWE’s biggest stars have stopped by Bristol on occasion to flex their muscles.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin Needs a Pick-Me-Up
I’d love to hit Stone Cold with a chair. That’s on my bucket list along with batting practice at Busch Stadium and throwing a used diaper at Stephen Ross.
Stephen King is a Ghost Writer
Even some unusual sports fans have stopped by the SportsCenter set to offer their help in putting together the No. 1 show for sports news, as diehard Red Sox fan Stephen King tried to write the day’s top stories as only he can.
Richard Simmons is Always Bizarre
Most fitness and health experts will tell you that sitting at a desk all day is terrible for your body in a number of ways, so it was a very good thing that Richard Simmons swung by Bristol to teach the SC crew some fitness tricks.
RIP Crocodile Hunter
If I was ranking only the best SportsCenter commercials involving college football, this one would take the top prize. Basically, any commercial that involves Muppets or mascots is going to be my favorite, and the following videos are my thesis on why it’s impossible to actually rank these commercials.
I also like the “Climate Control” commercial that features the Pittsburgh Penguin mascot, Iceburgh, but this one’s better because the Devil looks like he’s going to hell and that’s funny. LOL, eternal damnation!
Save Our Trees
The Stanford Cardinal’s tree is one of the more bizarre mascots in all of sports, but I definitely prefer the Christmas tree version to whatever this other tree is supposed to be…
Bubba Watson Faces the Trees
That mascot looks like an overgrown blunt if I was smoking weed laced with PCP.
Jason Heyward is a Masochist
I don’t normally believe in needlessly destroying trees, but when they look like that monster, I’m all for making Heyward as many bats as he needs.
We Feel You, Duck
Tuesdays, am I right?
The Hilltopper Above All
It surprises me that Western Kentucky’s enrollment isn’t higher than it is, based solely on the awesomeness of Big Red, the mascot of the Hilltoppers. Hardly a word in the end of that sentence makes sense to me, but just look at Big Red! He’s so goofy and wonderful. He should be in every SportsCenter commercial for the rest of eternity.
Some Pirates Plundering
As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I’m generally considered classier and more intelligent than most other baseball fans, what with my status as one of the Best Fans in Baseball. However, I can’t help but love Andrew McCutchen. If I had a kid, I’d let him watch a Saturday morning show about McCutchen and the various Pirate mascots of sports, even if ECU’s mascot looks like “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Jeter and the Phanatic
And then there’s Derek Jeter and the Phillie Phanatic – arguably the best baseball player of his generation and arguably the best mascot of all-time. All in one commercial. You can love or hate ESPN, but when all is said and done, there will be a spot in the TV Hall of Fame for “This is SportsCenter.”