As someone with a background in the advertising industry, I feel somewhat uniquely qualified in putting this list together. I've even worked on ad campaigns for some of the brands that made this list.
Although good sports commercials seem to write themselves, the opposite is true.
I worked for a short time on a campaign for Nike that was to include LeBron James.
The challenge was simple: What can we possibly do with a sports superstar that hasn't been done already?
The commercials that made this list are those that inspire and entertain, those that do what hasn't been done and perfect it in one fell swoop. Most are fairly recent, though the overall winner is an unbeatable old classic.
The final caveat is that there are well more than 10 commercials represented here, as in most cases the award goes to an entire campaign rather than a single spot.
These commercials simply have to be in any list of this sort, so I've lumped them together in No. 10 to get them out of the way.
Bo Knows: A cool old spot using one of the most talented athletes that's ever lived. An interesting note on this one is that in the hockey scene he's just wearing socks to slide around in, to avoid the possibility of injury while shooting the spot.
Be Like Mike: If you lived during the lengthy lifespan of these commercials, you can probably sing the song. This campaign adequately reflects, I think, the enormity of Jordan's prowess. He was the greatest player perhaps of any sport ever—and everybody wanted to be him.
Mean Joe Greene: A classic, classic, classic commercial of the feel-good type. While its entertainment value doesn't measure up by today's standards, and I couldn't have told you that Joe Greene was a defensive tackle without having looked it up, its enduring legacy earns it a spot here.
Grant Hill was a big deal, until he turned out to not be a big deal.
This Sprite campaign is still one of the most conceptually strong sports campaigns I've ever seen. The idea is that you shouldn't drink something just because an athlete does, drinking a specific product won't make you a better athlete, etc., etc.
In essence, they were commercials telling you to not trust commercials. Brilliant.
Go ahead, tell me this commercial is doctored up.
Tell me he's not really hitting those shots, tell me he's clearly not exerting enough effort to be shooting the ball that far, tell me you can obviously see where the camera cuts.
I don't care one bit. This commercial is awesome.
This spot comes before LBJ's colossal, every-household fame too, which gives it extra credit. It's a great spot, and it only gets better with age.
Kind of like LeBron.
This certainly isn't going to be the only time Peyton Manning shows up on this list.
These spots are extremely well-written. They could probably fly even with a non-charismatic athlete delivering the lines, but Manning's delivery knocks this out of the park (pardon a baseball metaphor about a quarterback).
A nice job by Manning all around.
This spot is perhaps the greatest use of an athlete in a commercial ever.
Why? Because it's all Tiger. You can't write this stuff. It's almost like they turned the camera on and said, "Hey Tiger, do something awesome."
We know all these superstar athletes have skills that can blow us away, so it's nice to see them put to good use.
I'm going to double this one up and add in another commercial that at first seems unrelated because it's about Roger Federer.
I just enjoy this spot to no end. The vibe of friendly competition is fantastic, and I like the concept of the top athletes from different sports duking it out.
This spot absolutely deserves its own spot on the list, but there simply wasn't room.
I know, I know. These probably don't belong on this list, at least not yet.
But I'll make my case for them and let you decide. I'm putting them here for two reasons:
1. They started running ones with old-school classic clips. I love those. I can't get enough of seeing the old footage of some of the most amazing players to play the game. It makes me realize that so little has changed—the game has always been intense, physical, and ruled by dominant athletes.
2. The Tim Duncan spot alone could be worth making this list. It's probably the only documented instance of Duncan showing emotion, and as much as I despise the Spurs, I never tire of this clip.
See the full list of these spots here.
The fact that I couldn't remember who these commercials were for is not a credit to them—but the fact that I remembered them at all sure is.
It's Terry Tate, the linebacker called to regulate in a corporate office environment. The main spot, here, is over three minutes long and made its mark primarily online. It's good, clever stuff—I especially enjoy Terry making an overhead presentation and asking for questions at the end.
Rumor has it that while filming these spots, he actually broke somebody's ribs with one of those tackles.
The whole list is here.
ESPN has consistently funny commercials. They're just always good.
The cream of the crop is right here, featuring Peyton and Eli Manning taking a tour of the ESPN facilities. This spot trumps all others in the use of athlete family members. Brilliant concept, brilliantly executed.
But focusing too much one on spot takes away from the overall profundity of the body of work. The full list is here, and it's extensive—it's a real who's who of superstar athletes: LeBron, Carmelo, Maria Sharapova, LaDainian Tomlinson, Chad Johnson (Ochocinco), Tiger Woods, Danica Patrick, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, etc., etc., etc.
You could waste hours of work time watching all of these—and I highly recommend it.
The fact that these spots didn't make the top spot is a credit to the strength of this list.
Most of the great sports commercials go for humor, because inspiring is hard to do. Most attempts at inspiring just turn into normal commercials, since we're so desensitized to the inspiring in sports.
But these are inspiring. They still give me chills.
The one I'll link to is the Kobe/KG spot from the Finals. Perfect in concept, perfect in execution.
The only thing that makes that spot better is that they did one with Magic and Bird—a throwback in honor of when the Lakers-Celtics rivalry was the greatest in all of sports, and blood was eagerly spent in pursuit of there being, in the end, only one.
The entire list is here. While they're all similar, they're worth it.
Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, in this classic McDonald's spot, top the list. And rightly so.
This commercial ran well before I entered puberty. To give it context, I had a Jordan vs. Bird game on our Commodore 64 computer. The "64" means it had 64k of memory—not 64 megs, mind you, but 64 kilobytes.
But the legacy endures. It's still talked about—in fact, it came up during the Lakers game the other day when a friend and I speculated that Derek Fisher's jump shot has so much arc it's in danger of hitting the scoreboard.
Is it old? Yes. Is it goofy? Yes.
But at the same time, it speaks to what we already believe about these athletes. Deep down, we see them as the pinnacle of human accomplishment—a mastery of the physical self so complete that nothing is outside the realm of possibility, nothing exists that cannot be conquered. It's transcendence, plain and simple.
And while that's a bit heavy-handed for this humorous spot, nobody ever complained that this spot is unrealistic.
We thrive on these kinds of showdowns between greats. The fact that this one is funny makes it that much better.
Is it the greatest sports commercial ever? I'd say so.