This is a place in which professional athletes and sports-channel staffers (and more than a few team mascots) work side by side — a place where Tiger Woods roams the halls trailed by a hushed gallery, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins breaks down tape with a slumping Scott Van Pelt, and NHL great Alexander Ovechkin rifles through files in his secret identity as a Russian spy.
This an arena of the deadpan and the absurd — presented in 30-second vignettes.
This is “This is SportsCenter” — the venerable and much-loved TV ad campaign that helped define a sports network called ESPN.
The Bristol, Conn., media giant recently launched its latest batch of commercials, including a riff on the unflattering effects of form-fitting uniforms, taking their place among the roughly 400 spots created since ad agency Wieden+Kennedy created the campaign in 1994.
TIME chatted with Aaron Taylor, ESPN’s senior vice president of marketing, and anchors Jay Harris and Steve Levy to collaborate on a Top 12 list and provide some insight into the process.
TIME: How many spots does ESPN produce each year? And how do you roll them out?
Taylor: We try to shoot between 15 and 18 per year and break it up to gang a couple of shoot-days three times a year. We do try to time the release of specific spots to relevant milestones in sports and what is going on with specific athletes.
Do the participants enjoy the process?
Taylor: I think the anchors always enjoy it. It is a break from what they do every day and the creative process with director David Shane is a lot of fun. We have athletes who come to us because they want to be part of the campaign and we have stories we like to tell about particular athletes. There are stories we want to tell about SportsCenter and sometimes the athlete can be interchangeable. When doing this a few times a year, you land an athlete or two and anchor the shoot around them.
What is the process for getting selected to appear in one of these spots?
Harris: To this day I still don’t know how they choose, but once you get started they read your personality. Every single athlete I have worked with on one of these commercials have all been excited and ready to go. They absolutely love it and it is cool to see them in that light.
What is the secret ingredient to a memorable spot?
Levy: For me, personally, it is when they are so out of character. I was trying to teach Chad Ochocinco a touchdown celebration dance and I got on the table and started shimmying, which is out of character. SportsCenter is so bang, crash, loud — and all the promos come to near whispers. We really have to take it down a notch.
Taylor: I like the ones that tend to be a little more quiet and subtle, like the Arnold Palmer spot. I love spots that aren’t trying too hard, but when there are this many of them now, it gets harder to pick, especially with classics such as Y2K.
Who comes up with the concepts?
Taylor: Wieden+Kennedy comes up with all the ideas. They have a process [their New York office was started in the 1990s to service ESPN] they seem to have perfected over the years.
Any good stories?
Harris: Man, I don’t know. I think probably my overall favorite is the one with the New Jersey Devil [more on that below], but I also like the one with strength training shoes with Candace Parker. She and I had so much fun walking down the hall. It was non-stop giggles. And Manny being Manny was really cool.
Levy: The promos are more talked about than anything I’ve ever done on the show and it is cool to see the athletes volunteer to come shoot in full uniform.
To create this list of the 12 Greatest “This Is SportsCenter: spots — which differs from ESPN’s own collection of favorites and are presented in no particular order — TIME collaborated with Taylor (whose selections are marked with an asterisk).
Spy – Ovechkin *
Don’t let NHL star Alex Ovechkin fool you as he did Steve Levy, he may just be a Russian spy, along with teammate Semyon Varlamov. There’s no other explanation for late-night filing. Levy says he blew 10 because he couldn’t help laughing at Ovy’s perfectly delivered lines. It’s one of the most expensive spots in the series — the filing room was a set constructed around a lift that gets Ovechkin through the ceiling.
What’s a guy like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees to do? He certainly couldn’t figure it out, shouting some great lines as ESPN anchor Stan Verrett offers no help.
Going Up *
Jay Harris didn’t like the answer he got from the New Jersey Devils mascot at the elevator. He probably made a wise choice. As Taylor says, “Spots like that are so subtle and smart.” Harris explains that he doesn’t even remember a script for it. “It was so simple that the director said ‘Just do something and we’ll see how it goes,’” he says. “We kinda felt it out and once we did it I knew it was going to be good. Who wants to go down with the Devil?”
Jimmie Johnson makes himself right at home in the ESPN parking lot, creating a little space for speed and maneuvering.
Maybe Lance Armstrong needs performance enhancers to keep the lights on at ESPN, but come on, a guy has to do what he can to keep his job.
The Kid *
The first-ever “This is SportsCenter” spot didn’t feature any athletes — still a common setup — but played with the idea of bringing in a new talent right out of high school. That’s too early, right? “That is still one of my favorite spots,” Taylor says.
The Expert *
Taylor loves the recent spot that puts into the rock-and-roll world of John Clayton. The carton of Chinese food is a great touch.
There’s nothing better than a nice thick patch of turf. Even indoors. ESPN had some fun making their headquarters a bit more performance friendly.
All work and no play makes for a sad day for the Oregon Duck.
A conference-room pow-wow involving anchor Stan Verrett and Red Sox and Yankees rivals David Ortiz and Jorge Posada takes a tragic turn when Red Sox mascot Wally walks by.
John Anderson’s dive doesn’t fool soccer star Abby Wambach.
What Does He Have? *
Candy. Lots of candy.