What makes a great sports commercial?

A successful ad, of course, has to sell something - a shoe, a financial service, the image of a brand. But the unforgettable ones transcend mere commerce. They connect with fans on a gut level. The best sports commercials of 2004 - as ranked here - reminded us why we love to play sports, and why we love to watch great athletes compete.They're about intensity, determination, adrenaline, heroes and virtuosity. They get us riled up. They're about how insane and funny and agonizing it is to be a fan, and how much we realize we're being crazy.

"The emotion of sport is what most of the people who work in this business respond to," says Mike Byrne, creative director at Wieden and Kennedy, an ad agency that happened to create six of this year's top 10 commercials for Nike, ESPN and Powerade. (The top 10 was chosen without knowing who made them.)

Byrne, a mastermind at perhaps the most influential sports advertising firm, is a passionate sports fan.

"I grew up in a family that was die-hard Eagles, Sixers, Phillies, Flyers," he says. "And, you know, any fan can tell you: There's not many businesses in the world where a guy can go out one day and pitch in a game, and be hated by everyone in an entire city or state - and then the very next day be the ultimate hero, and never pay for another meal again."

The best sports commercials make us gasp and delight - and make us want to grab a glove and get in the game. Here are the picks for 2004.

1. "Makeshift" (Client: ESPN, Agency: Wieden and Kennedy)

Watch this ad, part of

ESPN's self-promotional "Without Sports" campaign, and you immediately want to run outside and play. In a series of quick cuts, backed by crazy, driving percussion, scruffy kids do whatever it takes to get neighborhood games going: They draw white lines on pavement using rocks, use a pizza box for home plate, crush soda cans for use as hockey pucks and use lawn chairs as baseball backstops, laundry baskets as hoops and garage doors as soccer goals. It's intense, nostalgic and funny.

2. "What if" (Nike, Wieden and

Kennedy)

A sports fan's dream sequence, but these athletes really did this stuff: Lance Armstrong boxes against a real opponent. Andre Agassi plays for the Red Sox at Fenway Park, slapping a hit to right field. Serena Williams is a volleyball pro, Marion Jones an Olympic gymnast. Randy Johnson bowls against, and beats, Pete Weber. Michael Vick and Brian Urlacher skate as hockey teammates for the Colorado Avalanche. Wow! Don't wake us up.

3. "Laila" (adidas, 180TBWA)

Digital effects create a father-daughter boxing match: Muhammad Ali, in his prime, against his daughter and current boxer Laila. The creators spliced together segments from historic Ali fights, including the 1960 Rome Olympics and 1974 Rumble in the Jungle vs. George Foreman. Laila then mimicked the moves of her father's opponents, and technicians pasted her into the vintage films.

4. "Every Day Is Sunday"

(MasterCard, McCann Erickson)

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is an excellent comic actor, especially when gently mocking fans.

"Cut that meat!" he cheers for a worker behind the deli counter. "Tommy, please, you're my favorite worker!" he yells while begging to get a high-five from an accountant.

5. "Magnet" (Nike, Wieden and Kennedy)

It's Lance Armstrong's America, serene and beautiful, as the cyclist pedals through deserts, winding mountain roads and crowded cities, backed by acoustic guitar and heart-tugging piano. Along the way, he's also accompanied by migrating birds, a buffalo stampede, joggers, a motorcycle gang, fellow cyclists and lots of happy youngsters.

6. "The Squeeze" (Miller Brewing, Ground Zero)

This touching, wry, six-minute film, spread over four 90-second spots on ESPN, was made before the miracle Boston Red Sox season. It presents the dilemma of a pair of blue-collar Boston guys when their beloved Uncle Mac, a lifelong Sox fan, dies just as the Sox win Game 6 of the World Series. Guess when the funeral is scheduled for? Where would Uncle Mac have wanted the guys to be during the game?

7. "Michael Vick Experience" (Nike, Wieden and Kennedy)

An amusement park ride simulates, for a screaming rider strapped into a mechanical seat, what it's like to be Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, scrambling furiously around would-be NFL tacklers. His terrifying 360-degree flip into the end zone is hilarious.

8. "LeBron Practice" (Powerade, Wieden and Kennedy)

A TV announcer preps for a broadcast while LeBron James warms up on the basketball court behind him. James sinks a half-court shot that hits nothing but net, then backs up again and again to make one shot after another, each from farther back, until he swishes a soft jumper from the full length of the court. Yes, James is amazing, but special effects were used.

9. ":24 to Live" (ESPN, Wieden and Kennedy)

This music video for the NBA playoffs on ESPN captured a cool vibe, featuring nonstop graphics and movement by people of all shapes, shades and uniforms, to the tune of the funky "Let's Get it Started" by the Black Eyed Peas with guest star Carlos Santana.

10. "Tennis Kid" (Genworth Financial, Klamath Communications)

Tennis tour pro Taylor Dent is frustrated as he gets thrashed by an opponent who is a toddler. Then a minivan pulls up, with parents Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf inside, and Andre calls to his son: "Hey, buddy! You ready?" The idea is that the little Agassi has good genes, just like this financial firm, a spawn of General Electric. But the youngster in the ad isn't Jaden Gil Agassi; he's an actor.

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