The Last Dance - Successful Sports Marketing During COVID-19


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ESPN Creatively Revitalized Marketing To Their Demographic, In The Absence Of Live Sports

Whether it be sports games, sports highlights, or award shows, the world is in a serious entertainment drought.  However, there is a new show in town that might just do the trick.  Michael Jordan and his fellow ‘97-‘98 Chicago Bulls teammates star in The Last Dance, bringing the world back to relive one of the greatest basketball teams of all time. 

From partnerships to viewership to social media, the series does more than tell the story of NBA Basketball; it brings viewers to see the experiences off the court.  In this blog, Hollywood Branded discusses how The Last Dance successfully utilized sports marketing in the absence of live events and revitalized yesteryears marketing trends. 

The Last Dance Successful Sports Marketing Strategies

What Is The Last Dance?

The week of March 9, 2020 has been nicknamed “Doomsday” to those in sports.  COVID-19 had taken over our society and taken the NBA, MLB, NCAA, and many other organizations down with it.  As a college student and avid fan of the University of Rhode Island Men’s Basketball Team, I was devastated to see our teams chances of making the NCAA March Madness Tournament stripped away (and by the looks of the team next year, we will not see this opportunity again for a LONG time).  The sports industry and its marketing drive our economy and spirit, whether we believe it or not.  As someone who lost her Rhody spirit, I, along with millions of others, would soon discover what a bland and gloomy world we are without the excitement of live sporting events.  However, what ESPN brought to the table during these unprecedented times revitalized the hope and recognition in sports. 

On April 19, 2020, The Last Dance aired, staring MVP basketball player Michael Jordan.  The 10-episode docuseries highlights the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, diving into Jordan and other teammates pasts leading up to their final, historic season.  For viewers young and old, the series brings sports marketing successes and histories back to the forefront, every Sunday, during our month-long drought of championship reruns and early 2000s SportsCenter highlights.

Team Photo '97-98 Chicago Bulls in The Last Dance

Photo Credit: ESPN

The Marketing Game Plan

ESPN saw a problem; no live sports, no sports commentary, no way to get in front of their target audience.  Instead of accepting the entertainment lull during COVID-19, they highlighted the world of sports marketing in a creative way and they did so successfully at that.  Set to release in late August, The Last Dance was instead released in April, using the emptiness of television releases to dominate the market. The program highlights the perfect harmony of marketing elements such as event activations, celebrity endorsements, market viewership, and product partnerships that Michael Jordan and his team struck the world with.  Additionally, consumers are struck with new and creative elements such as commercial technology and social media marketing.

The pandemic is here, and for who knows how long.  However, as marketers, consumers, business owners, etc, we need to continue to be creative in how we reach our target demographic and develop new ways to do so.  ESPN can be a model for us all on the successful tactics developed to continue sports and entertainment marketing efforts. 

Michael Jordan Red Carpet Promotes Nike Celebrity Endorsement

Photo Credit:  Sneaker File


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Breaking ESPN’s past record, The Last Dance is now their most viewed documentary ever.  Episodes 1 and 2 estimated an average of 6.1 million viewers, a record breaking number.  This surpassed that of 3 million viewers on their next highest documentary. Whether watched on ESPN, ESPN2, Netflix, or any on-demand service, the documentary is viewable worldwide, even as far as India and the UK.  According to an article in Variety, “Netflix tweeted the numbers Wednesday, claiming that 23.8 million households outside the U.S. checked out The Last Dance". Although viewership of Episodes 7 and 8 dropped to about 5.1 million, the buzz has yet to stop. 

Of course there is always speculation about its successes.  Are the high ratings and viewership a result of an absence of sports? Would this have been less successful in the midst of other competing programs like the NBA finals or MLB games?  I guess that is something we will never fully be able to assess.  Regardless, people needed the excitement and joy that sports brings, and The Last Dance could have definitely benefited from the effects of COVID. I mean really… what do they have to compete against?

"The Last Dance" Viewership Skyrockets Other Documentaries

Photo Credit:

Nike x MJ Collaboration

The docuseries did more than highlight iconic moments on the court; it brought back one of the most iconic partnerships in marketing; Nike x MJ.  The Jordan Brand launched in 1984, revolutionizing Nike as a brand to the present day.  Episode 5 of the series highlights the brand prior to the 80s as being made for streetwear and trend, but “Air Jordan” brought the company to contend against Adidas and Converse in the athletic-wear sector.  According to Jordan’s manager, David Falk, the brand aimed to sell $3 million in Jordan’s by year 4, but had exceeded that goal by selling $126 million by year 1.  

My generation grew up idolizing the “Air Jordan” line, raving about shoes like Space Jam 11s or Grape 5s.  People of all ages would wait in lines overnight for long awaited Jordan launches.  Nike transformed over time, sponsoring the world’s top athletes in over 50 countries, valued at over $29.6 billion dollars.  From a viewers perspective, it was legendary to see the talents of one man help elevate an entire company to become the most well known athletic brand of the 21st century.  Would Nike be where it is today without the work of Jordan? Maybe, maybe not.  However, we can all agree as viewers of The Last Dance that Nike changed how customers and the world viewed them with the chance Jordan took on a less recognized company.  It will go down as one of the most iconic and successful partnerships in history and shows us the power in using one, very well recognized, celebrity to help rebrand an entire company.

Successful Celebrity Partnership Nike and MJ

Photo Credit:

Social Media Hype

It’s an understatement to say that social media exploded in favor of the series.  I mean, what else is really going on in sports and entertainment for that matter?  Within hours, the documentary became highlighted as the number one trending topic on Twitter.  At one point, a few weeks into the release, The Last Dance related phrases held 25 of the top 30 trending topics.  Similar to many young adults, I can spend hours on end scrolling and exploring social media sites on Instagram and TikTok.  But on Sundays especially, I could not go a few seconds without Michael Jordan splashing across my screen. 

Many notable accounts such as Sports Center, ESPN, Barstool, NBA, and Bleacher Report used their Instagrams to highlight Jordan and the series’ best moments.  These accounts average 16 million followers each, so you can only imagine the type of media reach and free advertising circling around.  Even hashtags such as #TheLastDance or #Jordan had 146k to 26 million posts via Instagram.  Gaining the most social media hype of anything at the moment, people from sports commentators to singers to influencers posted about their infatuation with the series.  Hitting that many demographics with free advertising? Unheard of.  The power of influencer and social media marketing for the program demonstrates just how increasingly important and beneficial they are becoming in the advertising world. 

ESPN Instagram Social Media About "The Last Dance"

Photo Credit: ESPN Instagram

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It’s More Than A Game: It’s An Experience

In watching the documentary series, it was evident that the business aspect of sports reigns just as important as Jordan sinking clutch 3 pointers in a playoff game.  Fans in the Jordan era proved that it was not just a sports game, but it was an event and an experience.  Almost every game, whether it was Jordan’s beginning in the 1980s to his end in the 2000s, sold out crowds were guaranteed.  It did not matter if it was the Boston Garden or Staples Center, Michael drew a crowd.  Fans of all ages would take day trips, road trips, or even vacations to watch the Chicago Bulls play.  From scalpers outside to concessions stands to Megatron appearances, games encompass more aspects than just dribbling down a court.  Now more than ever, sporting games ultimately become sporting events. 

MJ spoke to the cameras in the series about his favorite place to play.  As shocking as it seems, it was not in Chicago surrounded by Bulls fans.  It was Madison Square Garden were he felt a certain energy and excitement. It was about the experience. Unlike myself who tends to throw some shade at the opposing team in a ball game, fans responded to Jordan and respected him enough for standing ovations. 

If the industry has shown me anything, it’s that players and franchises have a duty to the fans that extends past the court.  Especially when the world escapes COVID-19, it will be a gold mine to capitalize on the opportunities a sporting game offers; not only to increase sales but to increase fandom and support in the industry.  Although it may seem disloyal in some circumstances with trading players and re-branding, providing engagement for fans and providing an experience is just as important as sinking the shots. I mean, who would attend a game without a T-shirt Toss?

Madison Square Garden Famous Basketball Venue

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Fan Favorite Commercials

Besides the content within the show, ESPN and ad agencies saw a new technology utilized within commercials.  With few new commercials being produced, consumers have been stuck with the same two types of advertisements; reruns or split screens with multiple people in their homes. 

It was a State Farm commercial aired during every episode that reestablished a new type of ad.  The technology was able to rework old footage of SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne in 1998, rewording his speech.  “This is the kind of stuff that ESPN will eventually make a documentary about,” Mayne says. “They’ll call it something like ‘The Last Dance.’ They’ll make it a 10-part series and release it in the year 2020. It’s going to be lit. You don’t even know what that means yet.” As a vintage State Farm logo appears in the background, he adds, “And this clip will be used to promote the documentary in a State Farm commercial.”  

As someone, who is not very attentive during commercial breaks and uses them for snack time, the advertisement made me feel as though the series was back on the TV.  Needless to say, I was more than confused when I heard a 1998 anchor using words like “lit”.  Whether viewers saw it as creepy, confusing, or creative, the technology is rumored to be used by ESPN in future commercials as well.  I am sure we can expect to see other ad agencies hop on this trend and rightfully so.  Commercials and advertising need to change with the times, and developing new and creative technology is just one way to do so.  After all, isn't the goal of a commercial to catch attention?  Well, these do!

New Commercial Technology During COVID-19 State Farm

Photo Credit:

A Life Without Sports

Would America love to see another Cinderella story NCAA Basketball team win it all with a buzzer beater? Yes. Would the world love to see the Curry v. Lebron NBA Finals matchup again? Yes. However, if there is one great takeaway it’s that we don’t need live sports to create exciting and attention-grabbing memories for sports fans.

All it might take is one episode of a documentary to bring sports marketing back to the forefront in a time where without it, there was none. We may not be able to replicate ESPN’s marketing game plan in how they bridged the gap between old and new elements, but we can use this as a model and recognize that a lull in entertainment is also an opportunity.

In this drastically changing world, check out below some of our other blogs that highlight more successes in the sports industry, on and off the court. 

Want to learn more about how your brand can work with athletes and other celebrities for partnerships that last a lifetime - beyond the field or court?  Check out our celebrity endorsement video on great case studies that moved the needle.

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