The story of Nigeria’s Olympic bobsled team has been one of the most closely-watched of this year’s Games: three American women of Nigerian descent who are the first to represent their nation, and Africa, in bobsledding. Their captain built her first sled with materials from a hardware store, and all three left behind everyday lives to train hard for a sport to which they were completely new. When they took the course this morning, they made history; tomorrow, they’ll do it again.
That’s the sort of story that any brand would be lucky to support, and so the team’s apparel sponsor, Under Armour, is making the most of it. They went all-out to produce "Ice Blazers," a series tracking the team’s progress from Olympic dream to reality, turning the bobsledders’ journey into a high-production documentary with a new kind of brand value.
"They’re taking a different approach to athleticism and changing things for their home continent, said Megan Oepen, head of Under Armour’s Content House, the brand’s content production division. "So we asked ourselves, what’s a different way we can tell this story, that goes a little deeper and does justice to what these girls are trying to do?"
"Ice Blazers" is the first venture for Under Armour Originals, a new sub-brand within the company founded to produce narrative branded content. With its deep roster of international athletes, UA has a lot to mine, and the bobsled team’s unusual story made the perfect match for the content division’s initial offering. "Brands are really starting to become content providers for consumers, so it [made sense] to develop this story in that space," Oepen said. "There’s a sandbox of social digital content that can be as narrow or wide as we want, so why not play in that sandbox in a unique and interesting way?"
UA’s sports marketing team initially brought the bobsledders’ story to the overall content division, but Oepen decided quickly it was the perfect fit for special treatment within Originals. From there, her team got to work on story development, pulling in not just stakeholders for the execution itself, but also the athletes’ managers and additional creative directors and scriptwriters—"a cross-functional matrix," she said. The team settled on a story arc that would "honor what [the athletes] are doing, not just through this experience and at this Olympics, but how are they trying to influence how people look at athleticism in different parts of the world?"
With that narrative strategy in place, a lean production crew followed the athletes from their qualification race in Calgary through their final training preparations before the Olympics, in Lake Placid.
The result is a series of five shorts, between three and five minutes each, that weave together the athletes’ personal backstories, family heritage and unusual path to Olympic qualification. It is a very different story than many of the narratives Oepen has worked on previously in her long career in sports filmmaking. "I’m used to dealing with athletes who have access to everything," she said. "But these girls are scrappy and hungry and innovative, and they are the truest exhibition of will finding a way."
That, ultimately, is what made the bobsled team so perfect for this initial work for the Originals division. Their brand’s mission is to make all athletes better, particularly the amateur ones who buy UA products so that they can up their performance at a pickup basketball game or weekly volleyball meetup. Who, like the bobsledders, have normal lives to go back to when they leave the field.
"[The team] are athletes through and through, but they’re doing something they never thought they’d be doing," said Oepen. "We want to capitalize on telling stories of athletes who can push other people—the girl next door, or the guy on the couch who just needs that extra push to do something better."