Nothing but Net: The Strange History of Movie Commercials Made for the NBA Playoffs

If you've been watching the NBA Finals, you've been subject to a relentless series of ads in which Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx play a little totally spontaneous, not-at-all awkward one-on-one. The spots are meant to both promote the event you're watching and the forthcoming "White House Down." Tatum and Foxx talk a little trash about "making the president disappear" and score some baskets, but there's no real connection between their face-offs and the movie clips they're intercut with (planes exploding, people getting shot).

This happens all the time during the NBA Finals (though, oddly, not throughout most of the regular basketball season), but — aside from a few Deadspin columns — this minor annoyance hasn't seemed to get any kind of substantive overview. Here's a look at the NBA's cross-promotional movie endeavors from playoff seasons past.


This is the genre for which cross-promotional ads make the most sense, since it's easy to create visual links between real bodies zooming around on the court and the weightless crash-and-clang of blockbuster mayhem. The earliest example I could find evidence of, sadly, doesn't seem to have left a video presence online, but the NBA's official website still hilariously includes a section inviting readers to vote on "WHO HAS BEEN THE MOST HULK-LIKE IN NBA PLAYOFFS 2003?", including some unconvincing copy designed to make the link between the NBA's most-improved finals presences and Eric Bana intuitive ("They don't have green skin, they don't suffer from uncontrollable rage, and they aren't able to make chest passes with parked cars. But they did get a lot stronger in the NBA's second season.").

The earliest example of action movies working in tandem with the NBA with an extant online video presence I could find was this kind of undeniably cool ad for "Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen," in which Optimus Prime makes a slam dunk. All of the "Transformers" films have had heavy NBA Finals buy-ins, which makes sense: all three were released in late June, coinciding perfectly with the playoffs, though advertising usually errs on the side of heavy saturation rather than active crossovers It was appropriate marketing for a film that changed the face of movie cross-promotional advertising. ("We try to find properties where the cars are the stars, and literally our cars are the stars of this movie", General Motors associate director of marketing alliances and branded entertainment Dino Bernacchi said. "You don't get any more heroic than the roles that our four vehicles play.") "Transformers" director Michael Bay directed an unprecedented five spots for cross-promotional purposes; the NBA was just one part of this multi-pronged strategy.

The following year, the long-dormant Indiana Jones franchise had its own NBA ad. This "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" commercial would have been unthinkable in 1989, when the previous installment was released. Back then, the "New York Times" reported that Indy "had never happened on a toy level" (according to a toy trade journal editor) and could only be sold as a psuedo-classy "lifestyle symbol " to hawk "hats, shirts and expensive leather jackets." Nearly 20 years later, this Indy ad was just one part of a massive cross-over promotion campaign that again upped the ante on marketing stakes, including prominent ads on the MLB website and designing an Indy-like suit for Mario Andretti to race in during the Indy 500 (get it?!), demonstrating that fans of all sports were welcome. It's a pretty generic ad: to make footage from the movie match up with Finals action, a CGI basketball has to incongruously bounce out of an explosion out onto the court, a pretty cynical way to sew two unrelated pieces of footage together. Marvel Comics has been a heavy NBA ad buyer, with this early ad for the first "Iron Man" being a typical example.

"They say the best weapon is one you only need to fire once," Tony Stark says. This message would seem to be undercut by the monotonous dunk-explosion-dunk-explosion images — if you only need one killer shot (missile or dunk) to make it home, why does it take so many to win a game or war? — but generic seek-and-kill rhetoric obviously works equally well with court action and team sports. Marvel's cross-promotional ads all have roughly the same level of relevance between movie and sport. See for example this spot for "X-Men: First Class," in which a fireball bursts out of Chicago Bull Joakim Noah's chest, which probably still doesn't make him a heroic mutant.

The NBA doesn't play comic book favorites, since it's also done ads for DC Comics movies. Note e.g. this bewildering ad for the 2011 flop "Green Lantern," in which we learn that the ring "chooses you" — and, since the ring that calls Ryan Reynolds to greatness is green, that obviously means the Boston Celtics are his basketball equivalent:


The comic most persistently present during the NBA Finals is Adam Sandler. While that's good marketing (his fanbase has obvious overlap with the 18-34 demographic the NBA has unsurprisingly identified as a huge part of its viewership), it's also hard to argue with Sandler's sincere enthusiasm. He's a famed sports enthusiast: in 2003's "Anger Management," his girlfriend throws him a birthday bash at the now-closed ESPN Zone bar/restaurant in Times Square, knowing it's the perfect gift for a normal guy. The climax of that movie takes place at a Yankees game, and Sandler's been rumored to hold up production on "Grown Ups 2" to watch games on a big-scren TV carried around by part of his staff, complete with satellite dish. It's only natural he'd want to spend some time cross-promoting with the NBA, including this spot for 2000's "8 Crazy Nights" encouraging fans to "watch it live," directed by Sandler and featuring his typically strained voice in two equally annoying animated incarnations:

Both "Grown-Ups" and the forthcoming "Grown-Ups 2" had their fair share of NBA Finals promos. Ads for the former only live on in memory — they're Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock and David Spade sitting around making boring, average-fan comments about past series — while spots for the sequel include this embarrassing current specimen, where the gang toss a mimed invisible ball around the court:

There's also this ad for 2008's "You Don't Mess With The Zohan," in which Baron Davis is shockingly gracious about sharing the right side of a split-screen with Sandler mugging in character and once again playing annoying fan (Davis also has a cameo in Sandler's 2012 "That's My Boy"):

In all of these, Sandler runs the tiny gamut from courtside annoyance to a relatively uninformed guy calling into his local AM station's afternoon basketball chat show; he doesn't even try to make himself the equal of the players he clearly loves. This kind of modesty is pretty endearing, even if the ads themselves can be tough going.

There aren't all that many other examples of comedies tying themselves to the NBA, though there are anomalies like 2009's caveman flop "Year Zero," which ran a series of ads in which the basic premise is that Jack Black is a real sports fan (i.e., sloppy, well-informed and overtly masculine) while Michael Cera is a twitchy, emasculated nerd who obviously couldn't know the first thing about the NBA — the easiest possible joke about their two personas and one without much potential for development:


In beginning editing classes, film school students are encouraged to pay attention to "graphic matches" (to make the line of action from one shot flow to another, match up objects in to create continuity between shots, etc.). A lot of the action NBA ads above abuse this principle: because the two sources of footage don't have anything in common, the only meaning you can come up with is to suture together two disparate images through coincidental visual overlap. There's some of that in this oddball 2010 spot for "Angels and Demons," but more of it is simply nonsensical, e.g. a mention of the four elements necessitating soaring jump shots for "air" and goofily imposed CGI flames on players for "fire" (their moves are so hot, you see). What any of this has to do with Dan Brown's Illuminati-fixated conspiracy theories is unclear.

It's equally obscure why 20th Century Fox thought it necessary to promote the second installment of their unstoppable "Ice Age" franchise with an ad in which the loathsome Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) sits courtside and makes a pest of himself before implausibly jumping into successful action. Was it thought that fathers might be convinced by this that sitting through this movie out of paternal duty would be less painful than anticipated? At this point, not just execution but intent is totally baffling.