As the NBA returns, Michelob Ultra finds a way to put branded content into the game

By Jeff Beer

Jimmy Butler is excited to play NBA basketball again.

Of course, for the Miami Heat star and his fellow pros, it’s not the league as usual. When the 2020 season restarts on Thursday it’ll be in a Disney bubble, or more specifically, in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World in Florida. The COVID-19 format is 22 teams—16 playoff-bound teams, and six more contenders—gathered together in one place to play eight regular season games to determine playoff spots, with a postseason starting by mid-August.

Okay, so it’s not the NBA we knew before the league shut down in early March, but it’s still back.

For his part, Butler’s downright giddy to be getting ready for the bubble.

At least it looks that way in his new Michelob Ultra ad, where he’s packing up while crooning along to Hall & Oates “You Make My Dreams (Come True).”

Created by Wieden+Kennedy, the spot is just one part of the Anheuser-Busch brand’s coming out party as the NBA’s new official beer sponsor. “We had an ongoing partnership with Jimmy Butler from last year, and as we realized the NBA was coming back, what we wanted to capture was that excitement everyone is feeling about this return,” says vice president of Michelob Ultra Ricardo Marques.

Marques says the agency first pitched Butler by showing him a video of him showing off his singing skills on a plane with his U.S. national team teammates back in 2016. That eventually led to Hall & Oates & Butler. “He’s packing, happy, and excited to start playing again. We loved that idea. And Jimmy did an outstanding job on the spot, we’re really happy with it,” says Marques.

The Ultra Courtside experience

For Michelob Ultra, however, this is just the teaser to its larger brand play around the NBA’s return. This week the brand announced “Michelob Ultra Courtside,” a digital experience that allows fans to appear and communicate virtually inside the arena during the games.

The NBA announced this week that it has partnered with Microsoft to use Teams to bring 300 fans into the arena via its conferencing tool, and its “Together” mode that allows participants to feel more like they’re all in the same location—in this case, an NBA game.

Michelob Ultra’s Courtside contest not only offers fans a chance to sit as close to the action as possible, but Marques says it’ll also give those lucky viewers exclusive content.

“It’s a totally different stream of the game than broadcast,” says Marques. “There will be more than 30 cameras giving you unique angles of the game, you’re going to be able to hear everything, every squeak, the unfiltered athlete comments. When TV broadcasters go to commercial break, you’ll continue to be courtside.”

With Teams’ Together mode, the brand will be bringing in NBA legends to hang with fans while they’re watching the games.

While the virtual fan experience is very much a COVID-induced game plan, the league and specific teams (including the Sacramento Kings) have been working to create robust virtual game experiences for years. Here, Michelob takes branded content into a new direction, not just the traditional route of complementary content, but making the brand a significant part of the actual game experience.

Marques says it’s something that could remain after pandemic retrofitting of sports is no longer needed. “I can definitely imagine a scenario where that could happen,” he says. “Nothing official, obviously, right now, but as a fan, that would be really interesting.”

Putting in an ultra effort to engage sports fans

Michelob Ultra has been putting in overtime to figure out ways to engage sports fans during the pandemic, whether through its unique sponsorship of The Match II back in May, or its ongoing Movement Live program to help support gyms and trainers across the United States.

Marques says those projects helped inform how they approached this NBA season, and what people were looking for from a beer brand right now.

“We think there’s an opportunity for brands, particularly ones like Michelob Ultra, to bring a level of joy, levity, and normalcy that consumers are craving right now,” he says. “Certainly the return of joy does that, the idea you can kick back, have a beer, and watch a game is as close to normal life as we can get.”

Between the NBA’s new bubble reality and Michelob Ultra’s Courtside contest, maybe the next tune Butler sings should be “Private Eyes.”


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