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Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.
Mean Joe Greene’s ‘Hey kid, catch!’ | Michael vs. Larry | Chicks Dig the Long Ball | Lil’ Penny | Tiger Woods’ ‘Hacky Sack’ | Charles Barkley: ‘I am not a role model’ | Bo Knows | Mars Blackmon | Grandmama
How it came about?
When Nike asked its ad agency to craft a new commercial to sell cross-trainers two decades ago, Wieden & Kennedy creative director Chuck McBride had only one requirement for his staff.
He did not want another stale, humorless cross-training spot featuring athletes sweating through sets of sit-ups and push-ups.
It was 1999, the apex of Major League Baseball’s steroid era, a time when sluggers built like comic book heroes recaptured fans who had sworn off the sport and redefined what was achievable. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had just staged an epic battle for the hallowed single-season home-run record the previous summer and Barry Bonds was poised to upstage both a couple years later.
Struck by the disproportionate attention on the feats of power hitters, Wieden & Kennedy’s Canice Neary and Jeff Labbe proposed a tongue-in-cheek commercial highlighting the plight of the era’s elite pitchers whose achievements were being overshadowed. They wrote a script portraying Atlanta Braves aces Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux as jealous of the adulation McGwire and his peers received.
“Hey, we got Cy Young winners over here,” Maddux grumbles, as McGwire delights Heather Locklear and a throng of other onlookers by blasting batting practice pitches into the upper deck. The crowd pays no attention to Maddux or Glavine, leading both to buy Nike cross-trainers and go into training montage mode in an over-the-top effort to improve their swings and become home-run threats.
“There was so much press, so much craziness the year before when McGwire and Sosa went head-to-head,” Neary said. “The idea came into our head: What if every baseball player wanted to be a home run slugger? We were trying to figure out what would make it more fun and we landed on pitchers. Pitchers aren’t exactly known for their power hitting, so that made it better.”
Iconic line: ‘Chicks dig the long ball’
The signature line in baseball’s most famous commercial initially didn’t appear in the script.
For awhile, Neary and Labbe actually had something much more forgettable in its place.
The last scene of the commercial depicts Glavine and Maddux finally attracting the attention of Locklear after showing off their newfound power-hitting chops. “What can I say, girls love home runs!” was how the script originally called for Maddux to react.
Rightfully fearful that ending was too bland, Neary and Labbe bounced ideas off one-another for how to replace it. At last, Neary found inspiration in a scene from the movie “Stripes” when Bill Murray’s character declares, “Chicks dig me because I rarely wear underwear and when I do, it's usually something unusual.”
“I just kind of riffed on that,” Neary said. “I remember coming back into the office, throwing my arms up in the air and saying, ‘Chicks dig the long ball!’ I liked the line and I thought it was a good way to end the spot, but nobody had any idea that it would take off the way it did.”
Would the commercial have become as big a phenomenon without its signature catchphrase? Neary admits it’s unlikely.
“People probably still would have talked about the spot because the concept of pitchers wanting to be home-run hitters was kind of fun,” Neary said. “But I don’t think it would have been nearly as funny or nearly as successful.”
What’s the deal with Heather Locklear’s cameo?
While Glavine and Maddux were cast because they were well-known former Cy Young Award winners already signed to Nike, Locklear was not nearly as obvious a selection to swoon over McGwire’s home-run power. Neary admitted the Melrose Place star was not the blonde bombshell that Wieden & Kennedy originally had in mind when pitching the commercial to Nike.
“She wasn’t our first choice, but she turned out to be an awesome choice,” Neary said. “She was terrific in the spot and there was no ego when she showed up. It ended up working out well.”
Neither Glavine nor Maddux interacted much with Locklear during the commercial shoot, but Glavine said he ran into the actress a few years later at a charity bowling event thrown by New York Mets teammate Todd Zeile. Glavine introduced himself and joked, “That commercial really resurrected your career.”
“After that, she started doing a whole bunch of stuff again,” he said. “It had nothing to do with the commercial, but I had to take credit for it.”
Three fun facts
1. It irked Neary a bit when Maddux seemed to take credit for coming up with the “Chicks dig the long ball” line. In a 2014 interview with MLB Network’s Peter Gammons, Maddux recalled suggesting it to the director during filming, a version of events Neary, Glavine and McBride all contradicted. “That was part of the script for the commercial,” Glavine said. “The only ad-lib we made was at the end when I added, ‘Have you guys seen Mark? Have you guys seen Mark’ The rest of it was all in the script.”
2. Because he and Maddux shot footage for the training montage before filming the rest of the commercial, Glavine recalls feeling very confused. He couldn’t figure out why he and Maddux were hitting skeet shots or chugging protein shakes in a sauna. Said Glavine, “We were like, ‘Where is this going? How are they going to piece all this together?’ But obviously you see the final product and it all makes sense and it’s pretty funny.”
3. Maddux and Glavine had some fun at John Smoltz’s expense during a 2014 MLB Network interview when he wondered aloud why he wasn’t included in the commercial. Quipped Maddux, “You didn’t win enough games when that thing was going.” Added Glavine, “Smoltzy, Chicks dig the long ball, not the bald spot.”
Impact on pop culture
The first time Glavine watched the “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” spot in its entirety, he was in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse.
It drew a big laugh from his teammates.
In the days and weeks that followed, Glavine learned the commercial would also strike a chord with people who didn’t know him and Maddux personally. The ad became such a national phenomenon that “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” quickly entered the baseball vernacular and Nike cross-trainers and baseball gear flew off the shelves.
“The “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” cry, we heard it everywhere we went,” Glavine recalled. “There were a lot of requests for that on autographs, which was not necessarily the greatest thing. It’s a little bit hard to fit all that on a baseball.”
Eager to capitalize on the popularity of the commercial, Nike sold T-shirts bearing the catchphrase and asked Wieden & Kennedy to create follow-up spots. In the most memorable one, model Heidi Klum deadpans, “Face it, a low ERA just isn’t sexy.”
The commercial’s long-lasting appeal is particularly special for the family of Labbe, who died last year in New Orleans at age 53. The “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” campaign was one of his most memorable contributions to the advertising industry, along with Nike’s “Beautiful” and Fox Sports’ “Beware of things made in October.”
“At least a few times every baseball season, you’ll still hear about it,” Labbe’s wife Andrea said. “You’ll see it on a T-Shirt, or you’ll be at a bar having a beer and you’ll hear someone say it and smile. It comes up so much more often than you would think. It has stood the test of time for sure.”
One last behind the scenes story
While Wieden & Kennedy has typically been Nike’s sole advertising agency since 1982, its grip on that prestigious title was unusually tenuous in the late 1990s. The appeal of the Nike swoosh and the iconic “Just Do It” campaign had begun to wane by March 1997, leading the shoe-apparel giant to divide its advertising between two agencies, Wieden & Kennedy and San Francisco-based Goody, Silverstein & Partners.
The success of “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” was instrumental in saving Wieden & Kennedy’s relationship with Nike. In November 1999, Wieden & Kennedy won the tug of war with Goody, Silverstein and regained its status as Nike’s sole advertising agency, ending a competition as hard-fought as any featured in a Nike campaign.
“This was a very interesting time at Wieden & Kennedy,” McBride said. “We were a little under pressure because some of the business had been given to another agency. It made everything we did very important because it was a proving ground to win the business back.”