The Top Sportswear Commercials of All Time

Today I take a trip down memory lane to identify a few of the television commercials that, for me, have exceeded the level of infomercial pitch to touch the mantle of enveloping art. As with any "tops of all time list," these are thoughts are completely subjective, but I'll do my best to explain my thinking behind each choice and hopefully, my list will inspire you to start thinking of your own.

This rush of thoughts entered my head as a result of reading Mike Briggs well-written article about what he felt was the best commercial of all time. That inspired me to consider what I felt were the best commercials of all time. To a greater extent, it caused me to reconsider what could go into such a statement, and how our own timelines and perceptions play into how we relate, or don’t relate, to a brand's message.

Perhaps I should have titled this article, “The Top Sports Themed Commercials I Wish I Had Shot.” As a motion director, the level achieved in many of these spots is well beyond my wildest dreams. But it is more than the technical level achieved that these spots excel.

Like any list of the sort, I feel as though I should start by first pointing out the caveats. Number one, I have not seen every commercial ever made. So, yes, there will be some amazing commercials missing from the list. Two, I’m based in the United States, so I will no doubt miss a number of commercials from around the world that may deserve a place on the list. Three, I was born in the 1970s. I feel this is important to mention since these days it seems to be that everyone is quick to proclaim everything they just saw within the last week as “the best ever.” Especially with the rise of the social media echo chamber, it seems as though the use of hyperbole is ever expanding while our sense of history is ever in recess. So I feel the need to point out that my opinions are derived mainly from ads produced in the last four or five decades. No doubt there are earlier advertisements that I haven't had a chance to see.

Equally important is the fact that, in my professional life, I am a fitness and activewear photographer. Athletics are important to me. I was an athlete in my younger days, I am a fitness advocate now. More importantly, I chose my particular niche in the market largely because I feel as though athletic-themed storytelling is in a unique position to have a positive influence on people’s lives. Yes, I may just be taking a photograph or shooting a commercial with the objective to sell a few more pairs of sneakers, but the art I create to achieve that objective can have a much larger impact on society as a whole. Sure, the movie “Seabiscuit” is a crowd pleaser. But it also has the power to convey a sense that we can all overcome our obstacles in life, regardless of whether or not we’ve ever attempted to mount a horse. Athletics are a metaphor for life. They visualize our striving, hard work, and determination. They can do more than entertain. They can inspire.

So, without much further ado, let’s get to the list.

Nike - It’s Gotta Be The Shoes

In writing about the historic commercial spots in sportswear, I realized it would be impossible to do so without Michael Jordan. His arrival in the NBA not only introduced a few new dunks, but absolutely changed the culture. The NBA, a still growing league being sustained mostly on the charisma of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, would, as a result of Jordan’s ascendancy, quickly find itself as a cornerstone of pop culture. Nike, the Portland-based shoe company founded by Phil Knight and his former track coach Bill Bowerman was still in its nascent phase battling it out with more established brands like Adidas and Converse. In the 34 years since the original Air Jordan’s dropped in 1984, the company has gone on to become the largest sportswear company on the planet. Not only did he move the needle, he moved the world.

Helping to grow both his fame and his legend, Wieden+Kennedy produced this spot and hired a then up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of Spike Lee, fresh off the heels of his debut film, “She’s Gotta Have It” to both direct and recreate his character from that film, Mars Blackmon, to serve as the heroine's alter ego. Prior to “show me the money,” the phrase “it’s gotta be the shoes” set the bar for ubiquity and introduced not only Jordan, but the Air Jordan brand, as well skyrocketing the NBA into the new era.

Nike - Failure

I could write an entire article solely on Nike’s collaboration with Michael Jordan over the years. The commercials they’ve produced have stood as the gold standard for advertising for many years. But rather than just give you a list, I’d like to point out one of my own favorites from the Nike, Jordan, and Wieden+Kennedy collaboration.

This spot is the perfect example of what I mean by sport's ability to inspire others beyond the playing field. Already trading on Jordan’s iconic status, this commercial tries to show the human side of the idolized sports hero. By emphasizing not his success, but his failure, the commercial is able to both promote the brand and provide encouragement to viewers who may be going through their own trials and tribulations.

Gatorade - Be Like Mike

While Nike may be the brand that immediately stands out, there were actually two brands that Jordan built (three, if you include his influence on the growth of the NBA). Founded, somewhat amazingly, by Bill Bowerman, the same man who co-founded Nike, Gatorade is now synonymous with the term “sports drink.” You’d struggle to visit a game sideline or practice field in America without a cooler full of the neon-colored liquid promising to refill the athletes with electrolytes. In 1992, the brand dropped the “Be Like Mike” commercial spot that introduced the song that would forever stay stuck in the head of anyone with a tank top and dreams of someday playing above the rim.

McDonalds - The Showdown

Adding to the success of the "it's gotta be the shoes” tagline, there was also another Jordan uttered catchphrase that took the nation by storm. This time pairing two NBA legends, Jordan and Larry Bird, this spot introduced the words “nothing but net” into the national lexicon enough to inspire parody and even a remake following Superbowl 44.

Nike - Joga Bonito/Joy

I am a huge soccer (football) fan. Specifically, I am unreasonably emotionally linked to the FC Barcelona football club. But I wasn’t always. Growing up in the US, soccer just wasn’t really a big deal. While nowadays, you can have access to the best teams and players around the world, when I grew up soccer was just the sport you played until your parents deemed you old enough to play “real” sports like American football, basketball, or baseball. In fact, I only even started watching the sport late in life in an attempt to find topics of discussion to share with my then co-worker who was obsessed with the sport and specifically the Italian national team.

So, how did I suddenly become such a die-hard fan? Well, it all started with a lazy afternoon in front of the television set and seeing this spot from Nike staring Brazilian soccer phenomenon Ronaldinho. Playing on Ronaldinho’s own sense of flair and joy for the game, the brand again uses sport to connect the viewer to the player’s humanity. Once asked for the definition of Brazilian soccer, Ronaldinho replied simply with one word “happiness.” This spot reminds us that, even as we get older and acquire “maturity,” we must never lose the sense of play. We must stay young at heart as it is our pursuit of joy that makes life worth living.

Nike - World Cup 2010 

One of the first commercials that really made me stand up and say “wow.” This extended Nike commercial for the 2010 World Cup forced me to re-evaluate what a “commercial” could really be. In scale and scope, this spot is really something of a mini-movie. Even if you don’t like soccer, it’s worth the watch. And it is also a prime example of one of the key components of a successful campaign: relatability.

One of the joys of watching the world cup is not only watching the clash of the teams but also the clash of the cultures. Every represented country brings with it their own sense of community. When you root for a country, you are rooting for more than just the eleven players on the field, you are rooting for your own people.

In the “Write The Future” spot, Nike plays off of many of the cultural touchstones of the various countries to produce an epic storyline that both ties the communities together, while at the same time celebrating their differences.

Beats by Dre - The Game Before The Game

It is as I’m writing this essay that I’m realizing how many of these advertisements have come from Nike. Perhaps it’s a result of my coming of age during the Jordan era, or simply the fact that Nike’s marketing team has driven the conversation for much of my lifetime, but I am clearly drawn to their aesthetic, even as it has changed over time.

They are not, however, the only name in the game. In fact, my favorite commercial of all time, the one I would give my firstborn to have been a part of doesn’t come from a sportswear brand at all. Well, not really.

Beats by Dre was founded by music luminaries Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. They initially gained popularity by smartly positioning their headphones as the preferred choice of the NBA. The sight of NBA All-Stars warming up in the pregame with a pair of $300 Beats headphones cradled around their ears was more effective than any one commercial ever could have been. This origin story forever wedded the ideas of music and sports into the Beats branding. Their subsequent marketing efforts continue to reinforce that pairing, often featuring high-level athletes using the product to further their on-field ambitions or off the field peace of mind, while their commercials can also be seen to serve as backdoor music videos for the artists who provide the soundtracks.

The R/GA produced “The Game Before The Game” spot, fronted by former FC Barcelona star, and current PSG superstar, Neymar, transcends the level of commercialism to assume the mantle of art. I can’t say I’ve ever had the money to own a pair of Beats headphones myself. But I can say that the commercial itself sits atop my YouTube favorites list and has been played on more than one occasion as motivation prior to my own workout. Not many brands can say that.

Under Armour - I Will

Not to be outdone, Under Armour, often teaming with ad firm Droga5 in recent years, has more than held its own in the field of athletic advertising. The Under Armour spots tend to focus on training and hard work. They reiterate the fact that champions are made on the practice field, not just on game day. And few athletes encapsulate this message more than Misty Copeland, principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre. Not only is Misty Copeland a beautiful woman, but she is a powerful athlete. Don’t think of a dancer as an athlete? Have a look at this spot then ask that question again.

Nike - Da Da Ding

Okay, yes I have a massive crush on Deepika Padukone. Any man who, like me, first discovered her in the Bollywood romance “Om Shanti Om” opposite Shah Rukh Khan would have no choice but to fall in love with her. But it is her athleticism developed during her former life as a badminton star that is on display here. In this fast-paced and empowering spot from Nike, the brand celebrates the local culture while connecting to up and coming female superstars around the world. 

Beats by Dre -  Serena Williams and Richie McCaw

One of the greatest aspects of sites like YouTube and other social media platforms is that they provide both advertisers and consumers new platforms and methods through which to connect. While the standard twenty-second television commercial has been a staple of the advertising industry for decades, the advent of sites like YouTube allows marketers to dream bigger with regards to their content. Many of the spots I mentioned above run far beyond what would fit within the boundaries of a standard prime-time commercial break. But on social media, advertisers can experiment with more long-form content and tell more involved stories.

This puts the pressure on marketers to produce content that is engaging which, in turn, ups the level of the content as audiences always have the option to opt out of your marketing message with the simple click of a mouse. But, by creating content that carries the brand message while being able to stand on its own as entertainment, brands can create media which allows potential customers to actually opt-in to their messaging. Essentially, they can provide a way in which customers can help companies sell their products to themselves.

Have a look at these two spots from Beats which provide engaging content that introduce you to the feeling of the product without having you feel overwhelmed by the sense that you are being sold in the process.

Under Armour - Phelps

Like a great film that only makes sense to you later in life, I do wonder if the true value of this terrific Under Armour spot featuring Olympic legend Michael Phelps may be lost of many until they reach a certain age. As much as older people can tell you how your body will one day begin to break down as you age, there’s a difference between connecting to something on a mental level and experiencing it for yourself. This beautiful spot, accompanied by the soulful tunes of The Kills “The Last Goodbye,” does a brilliant job of both acknowledging struggle and providing the inspiration to fight back against it. Not only confined to the swimming pool, the message is relatable to anyone out there who feels long at the race and has to dig deep each day to ask for more.

Nike - Freestyle

Simple yet powerful. Who says you need a multi-million dollar budget to create a memorable message. While this memorable campaign was made by the largest sportswear company in the world, the production is not anything that couldn’t be achieved by any resourceful and talented independent director likely with the tools already in your possession. But the creativity within those constraints is what really set this spot apart.

Adidas - I'm Here to Create and One In A Billion

Priority number one for advertising is to establish brand identity in the minds of the customers. While I would personally describe the Nike aesthetic as elegant and polished, it’s crosstown rival Adidas is all about rebellion. Their spots tend to focus more on the individuality of the athlete being portrayed. Either through humor, as in the ad featuring soccer star Paul Pogba, or through anarchy, the idea is to celebrate the creativity and personality unique to their subjects. In short, Adidas is after the people who don’t fit in. And, moreover, they are proud to stand out from the crowd.

Nike - Together

In contrast, this spot from Nike plays to the opposite emotion, our need to feel connected to those around us. Created to debut on the eve of Ohio native LeBron James’ triumphant return home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Nike chose in this commercial to play off of the concept of community and extend the importance of the moment beyond the court into the hearts of all those who call the city home.

So would any of these make your own list of favorite commercials? Maybe. Maybe not. How we react to art is entirely subjective and no two of us are alike. But it is the great advertisers that are able to cut through these demographic lines and find ways to connect with an audience on a deeper level. Across languages, across oceans, they are able to produce stories that connect to our hopes and dreams and fill us with aspiration.  

These are just a few of my own personal favorites. What are yours?

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Perhaps I'm biased because I'm a Kiwi, but the ad with Sir Richie McCaw was the best one in my opinion.

I loved the landscape and the passion. I loved how the ad played to how we as Kiwis see ourselves. Choosing Richie was a safe bet - He was probably the most liked person in the country at the time (is still very very well liked) and is always humble and friendly...

I love that one. And the song is amazing.

Great list. Nike's Break to Build was always one of my personal favorites - the editing in particular is just outstanding, and it's a great example of "shooting to edit". You can tell the director had a very specific flow he wanted to go with, his DP totally got it, and the editing completed it.

Great rhythm to the cuts.

Nike's Move was another great one for a lot of the same reasons. Plus the audio design.

Lovely design. Graceful editing.

I'm kinda partial to this one: