With assists from athletes and celebs, ESPN is scoring big points with its clever 'SportsCenter' commercials

The premise is loopy. the writing is snappy. The guest stars are campy. In fact, it just might be TV’s hippest series … of commercials.

For the last two years, ESPN’s ”This is SportsCenter” ad campaign, which celebrates the network’s smart-alecky news show with a This Is Spi¨al Tap-like mockumentary wink, has delivered some of the freshest entertainment on the tube. In one of a dozen new spots, boxer Evander Holyfield brings a ringside flavor to the day care he runs for the kids of ESPN employees (a card girl even flaunts a ”Nap Time” sign). Another classic ships less-than-studly anchor Charley Steiner to Melrose Place for Andrew Shue. ”The best ESPN sportscasters are classic smart asses, so we took that as our cue,” says Hank Perlman, who penned most of the 80-plus spots for ad agency Wieden & Kennedy. ”We wanted to hold a mirror up to the world of sports and screw with it.”

The spots are certainly leaving their mark: Sometimes it seems the ads get more airtime than the show itself. The campaign — which features cameos by Roger Clemens, Grant Hill, Tony Roberts, and appropriately enough, Spi¨al Tap‘s Michael McKean — has nabbed several industry awards. Recent ads for Sony PlayStation, Energizer, and The Weather Channel have echoed its deadpan vérité look. ”The goal was to make SportsCenter a talked-about brand,” says ESPN marketing VP Judy Fearing. ”Now it’s part of pop culture.”

The campaign was first born during a 1995 visit to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. ”We were blown away by the silliness of this little industrial-park town which sports fans think is the place where it all happens,” says Perlman. ”So we decided, ‘Why not make Bristol the center of the sports universe?”’ Thus the network’s HQ was transformed into a hoppin’ joint where athletes and team mascots grill burgers and deliver highlight reels. ”When they first told us what they wanted us to do — put on makeup and beat up mascots — I thought, ‘This isn’t what I had in mind,’ ” admits anchor Dan Patrick. ”But once we saw the first batch, everyone wanted to be in them: ‘C’mon, he got to play the pimp last week! Let me!’ People were giving up their vacations.”

The anchors aren’t the only ones smitten. Throngs of celebs including Tiger Woods, Dennis Rodman, Jackie Chan, and Hootie and the Blowfish are said to have expressed interest in shooting ads. ”I’ve never seen a phenomenon like this,” says Ryan Schinman of talent agency Worldwide Entertainment and Sports. ”My athletes are dying to get in these spots.”

There’ll be plenty more to jockey for, especially given the campaign’s low price tag (the first 70 ads cost under $1 million — less than the typical price of a single hyper-slick Nike spot). ESPN plans to release at least 20 more ads this year. ”We’re hoping to get the alien from Alien,” confides Wieden and Kennedy creative director Jerry Cronin. ”It’d be great to see him start killing all the mascots and anchors — and maybe a nondescript janitor.”