ESPN knew it had a potential megahit on its hands with the Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls-focused documentary “The Last Dance.”
So rather than treat it like other sports documentaries, the network wanted to approach the release the same way a Hollywood blockbuster would be rolled out – leading ESPN to huddle with their Walt Disney Co. colleagues at Lucasfilm to see how it could give “The Last Dance” a similar approach as say, the newest “Star Wars” films.
The idea of having ESPN’s marketing team travel to the Disney lot in Burbank to pick the brains of their Lucasfilm counterparts came from Estee Portnoy, Jordan’s longtime manager.
“When we sat with them, it opened our eyes to the marketing of a blockbuster: how it starts really early, how you have to keep the drumbeat going, and you have to dimensionalize the story beyond the main protagonists,” said Seth Ader, ESPN’s vice president of brand marketing. “They were showing us examples of how they’ve done that. We tried to follow their blueprint pretty closely.”
During ESPN’s meetings with Lucasfilm, the creative minds behind “Star Wars” marketing emphasized the importance of the tease. Their strategy: tantalize potential audiences with trailers for the new “Star Wars” movie as far as 18 months in advance, then keep them on the hook with additional trailers six months, three months, and, finally, one month before release. The “Stars Wars” strategy worked like a charm for “Last Dance,” according to Ader.
Before the coronavirus pandemic suspended sports, ESPN originally planned to premiere the first episode on June 2, 2020.
During Christmas 2018, ESPN released the first trailer – 18 months before that projected premiere date. The 60-second teaser sparked a social media sensation, generating 35 million impressions.
ESPN’s initial strategy was to promise viewers they’d get access to 500 hours of never-seen footage of Jordan and the Bulls shot by NBA Entertainment. The message: “Last Dance” would be the TV equivalent of digging up a sports “time capsule” from the pre-social media days of 20 years ago.
“We wanted to make sure the audience understood this was not your typical documentary,” Ader said. “This was going to be, in some ways, mind-blowing, because of the way that moment was captured.”
Then six months before the planned premiere, ESPN dropped a second trailer on Christmas Day, 2019. This one teased viewers with a Who’s Who of the 100-plus people interviewed for the documentary, including Jordan himself, Bulls teammates Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, and Bulls coach Phil Jackson, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama and the late Kobe Bryant.
The timing was no accident. Christmas has become an “NBA holiday,” noted Ader, with the league playing half a dozen games each year on Christmas Day. By dropping the second trailer on Christmas, ESPN knew it would reach hard-core hoops fans as well what Ader called “story seekers”: casual sports fans more interested in NBA stars than specific games.
With three months to go, ESPN rolled out the third trailer in March 2020. This one sought to connect Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman’s college basketball careers with the NCAA March Madness tournament. When ESPN changed the end card on the trailer to “Coming Soon” rather than “June 2nd” it sparked feverish hope and speculation the network was moving up the premiere date.
That wasn’t the actual plan, said Ader. Then the coronavirus changed everything, wiping out March Madness.
At first, programming chief Burke Magnus publicly said ESPN wouldn’t change the premiere date because the film wasn’t finished. But with no live sports to offer, ESPN caved to fan demand and pushed the premiere up to April 19.
The latest hype trailer, released a month before that April 19th premiere quickly became ESPN’s best-performing ad, generating 40 million impressions and a 98% positive response, according to Ader. ESPN’s research indicates “intent to watch” numbers are sky-high for “Last Dance,” he added.
“The anticipation is off the charts. We have a lot to live up to – because the film is that good,” said Ader.
The “Stars Wars” marketing team also gave ESPN another good tip when they advised them to focus almost as much on the supporting actors as the megastar Jordan.
Even Hollywood scriptwriters would have trouble dreaming up characters more colorful than “The Worm” Rodman, “Zen Master” coach Jackson or Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ late general manager. Along with Jordan, they are also all getting posters as part of the ad campaign.
However, whether “The Last Dance” matches the viewership and critical acclaim of ESPN’s Oscar-winning “30 for 30” documentary, “O.J.: Made in America,” from 2016 remains to be seen.
ESPN was counting on the now-suspended NBA Playoffs and NBA Finals to further generate huge audiences for the documentary.
Still, the shortage of live sports provides an opening for “Last Dance” to become the kind of TV event ESPN envisioned, according to Howie Schwab, former host of “Stump the Schwab” and current consultant and writer.
With the coronavirus wiping out ESPN’s live coverage of sports ranging from NBA to MLB and UFC to tennis, the network is desperate for new sports programming, he said.
“I know they want to get this Michael Jordan thing on quickly because of this. And I understand why,” Schwab said. “Because there’s just nothing else. There’s very little on.”
Given the positive reaction to the “Last Dance” teaser campaign, Ader is expecting big things for the documentary, which will unspool on ESPN over five weeks through May 17. ESPN2 will also simulcast an alternate version with adult language censored while Netflix will stream it internationally.
There’s a whole generation of younger sports fans who’ve read and heard about Jordan’s legend. Now they can experience it themselves, said Ader.
“We’re starved for sports. We’re desperate for heroes. We’re desperate for inspiration,” he said. “Michael’s story, and the Bulls dynasty, could be just the remedy for that.”