BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE VOTTO SPORTSCENTER COMMERCIAL
My colleague and good friend Zach Bonkowki (aka @Bongreatness) accompanied Joey Votto to ESPN headquarters over the winter for the This Is SportsCenter commercial.
The following is a manifesto of Zach’s trip. You might want to kick back with a blanket and a large cup of coffee…
January 20 – For the last five weeks I was really looking forward to this trip. I had been assigned to go on location to the ESPN Campus in Bristol, CT, and serve in a “quality control” role during the taping of a “This Is SportsCenter” commercial featuring reigning National League MVP Joey Votto, Baseball Tonight anchor Karl Ravech & mustachioed team mascot Mr. Redlegs. But here I am on the morning of the travel day, not knowing if I will even make it out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
The morning started at 6AM, when I met Reds Events Coordinator & mascot performer extraordinaire Nick St. Pierre in the parking garage of Great American Ball Park. We were originally scheduled to fly from Cincinnati to Hartford, CT, on an 11am direct flight. But, instead, we had to get to the airport as quickly as possible because the 11am flight was already cancelled and the 9am flight was in jeopardy.
Upon arrival at CVG a light snow began to fall on the region. It was due to pick up in intensity throughout the day and would end up depositing several inches on the tri-state. Great for kids who wanted an early weekend, but terrible for a couple of commuters attempting to fly halfway across the country.
By the time we made it to check-in it was clear to us that we better find the quickest route out of town. At first we considered a Drew Stubbs-drawn carriage, but we decided to take the first flight to the east coast instead. At 7:15am we boarded a flight to Reagan International Airport in Washington, DC and by 7:45am it was wheels up.
The flight to DC was good and after a short layover we headed north up to Hartford, arriving in the early afternoon. ESPN had arranged a nice transportation service to pick us up at the airport and within minutes Nick and I were on the way to the Marriot in Farmington, CT. I was sort of amazed that there were several feet of snow on the ground in this area, but yet all roads were completely cleared off. It’s kind of amazing that different areas of the country can be prepared to varying degrees for the same weather events.
After checking in Nick and I enjoyed a quick lunch and then I attempted to complete an 8-mile marathon training run. Again, it was nice to have cleared streets in the area, but I’m pretty certain that folks up there did not particularly care for me running down them. There were several times I had to duck off into a snow bank to avoid getting plowed over (literally).
One of the cooler things of the night was walking around the hotel, which ESPN uses to host most of its part-time analysts and all of its celebrity guests. During the course of the night I happened upon the likes of former New England Patriot and current NFL Live contributor Tedy Bruschi – which prompted a text to my boss, and die-hard Patriots fan, Ralph Mitchell (@rmitchell99). Ralph, who is a former Boston College football player and once bench pressed a 1985 Buick Grand National in a strongman competition, replied back to let me know “Bruschi is THE MAN”.
On Friday morning we were scheduled to be the first commercial shot of the day. Actually, the other two commercials that were shot that day are also now airing on ESPN – one featuring the facial hair of Giants closer Brian Wilson and the other featuring Braves slugger Jason Heyward. Mr. Redlegs and I left the hotel in an SUV around 8:30AM and the MVP followed behind us a few minutes later in his ride.
Arriving at the campus was very cool. Not only because we made it alive, but also because you actually go in the same entrance that is featured in the very fun Drew Brees/Mardi Gras float commercial. This became one of my favorite games while at the Campus, identifying areas of the building where other commercials had been shot. A few that I recognized included:
- The elevator where the New Jersey Devil mascot’s “Going Up” commercial was shot
- The hallway where Peyton & Eli Manning where shown acting like spoiled kids
- The copier room where Albert Pujols filmed “I Am Not a Machine”
The ESPN Campus is actually a series of connected buildings that go in a big loop. I’m not exactly sure how many buildings we passed through on the way to the shoot location but I do know that if the lights went out in that place that I would definitely have needed to follow Charlie Steiner to freedom.
By a little after 9am we were ready to get started. The shoot location was in a men’s restroom right by the Baseball Tonight set and across the hall from a location that they use for some basketball shows. At least I think this was the case because Andy Katz and Hannah Storm were sharing the same dressing room as Mr. Redlegs and Joey. The dressing room also had various ziplock bags with makeup for all the different ESPN personalities, including Magic Johnson, Linda Cohn & Mike Tirico. (Yes, it is possible to name-drop throughout this story and not come off sounding pompous. Just the facts people, I’m not saying I’m friends with them.)
I had actually known the premise for the commercial for several months. Joey and Karl were to be in a restroom while Karl examined his blossoming mustache. Just when Karl was starting to think he had something going, Mr. Redlegs was to burst out of a restroom stall and subtlety shows him a real ‘stache. On paper I thought it sounded like the perfect concept…then we moved approximately 47 people into a restroom intended to hold 9 people max.
After getting used to the tight confines, the cameras started rolling. I tried to capture some of the cool back-and-forth between the director, the stars and the crew in some photos. They really don’t do justice to just how many takes there were and how intricate all the details of the set were. After about 30 minutes I had to bail out because it was just too hot in the room – not to mention I had had 4 cups of coffee that morning and I was standing in front of a non-functioning urinal, which is a bit of mind bender.
The shoot kept going for about another 90 minutes. I took that time to explore the facility a little further and also take advantage of the catering that was undoubtedly not intended for me. After about two hours of shooting the director was finally happy and he let the stars go. Joey seemed very pleased with the experience and was a great sport about all the different takes that went into producing a single commercial. And I have to hand it to Nick, who wore the mascot costume for nearly 3 straight hours without a break – a tremendous accomplishment in any scenario.
Within 20 minutes we were out the door and on our way off. Joey was headed to New York City to receive his National League MVP Award, Nick was headed back to Cincinnati and I was off to Boston to visit with some friends. What started as a trip that looked like it may not happen because of weather, turned out to be a tremendous experience for everyone involved!
Here are the photos of the trip – sorry, this was the best I could do – I don’t have a Magnifier 8000X Zoom Lens Transfigurer HD Camera like @Jamieblog does (true story – Jamie actually had to sell assorted candy bars around the Reds offices for 3 years to save up enough money for his camera). Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading a little bit about the making of “This Is SportsCenter” featuring members of your Cincinnati Reds family!