Three years ago, Allen Hall Advertising, a student-run ad agency, took on what would become one of its biggest clients: the Oregon women’s basketball program.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
The Ducks, led by underclassmen stars Ruthy Hebard and Sabrina Ionescu, were beginning to establish themselves among women’s basketball elite. And the student ad agency, also known as AHA, had a chance to promote what would soon become one of the nation’s premier teams. But promoting and raising awareness wasn’t the only goal. The Ducks wanted butts in seats.
In 2017, the agency debuted the “Wonder Ducks” campaign. The project granted each player a superhuman identity which could be found on posters throughout campus and at home games. Hebard’s was “Paint Power,” while Ionescu, unsurprisingly, adopted “Miss Triple Double.”
The following year, AHA changed things up. Each player still had her own unique alias, but this time each “ability” or “power” dealt with a force of nature: “Wonder Ducks: Forces of Nature.” Taylor Chavez was “Ice-olation” while Maite Cazorla embodied “Wild Fire.”
By the time the 2019 season rolled around, most Oregon sports fans were well aware of the high-flying Ducks. Their up-tempo, high-scoring offense was ravaging the Pac-12, and attendance skyrocketed. Head coach Kelly Graves’ squad looked ready to win a national championship and was getting more attention than ever thanks to women’s basketball’s best player, Ionescu.
But AHA’s job wasn’t done. A team of 25 students intended to go above and beyond the agency’s previous work, this time with a new approach. They elected to keep the wonder element, but redefine what it meant.
“Wonder doesn’t just have one definition,” senior and lead designer Matti Merdler said. “We gave it all these different branches to bring everyone together.”
So, after two years of the “Wonder Ducks,” “Witness the Wonder” was born.
“We decided to take a stand on creating a campaign that portrayed the players in a more humanistic way,” said senior Jay Russaw-Levesque, the project’s director.
The vision was to create an environment and experience that everyone could be a part of, and not simply give them something to idolize. AHA intended to increase awareness and attendance, especially by students and the Portland audience, without abandoning the idea of a strong spotlight on the player’s individuality.
Despite starting the campaign four months later than the original deadline — due to construction and other changes within Allen Hall, the building for the School of Journalism and Communication — the team worked tirelessly to finish the project in time for the season opener.
Like past years, each player was highlighted on her own series of posters, but this time with a more streamlined approach.
“I just wanted to simplify it a ton and focus on the girls actually playing the sport,” Merdler said. “I took the photos and then I had a couple design elements I kept consistent through every execution.”
The design elements include flowing lines to represent the movement and the motion of the players, joined by circles to resemble basketballs. The posters can stand alone, but when linked together line up perfectly in one continuous piece of art.
“Everything is very simple and sophisticated,” Merdler said. “[It] shows how they can all stand alone and look great and be amazing, but when they are all together, it shows how great they work with each other.”
Banners were hung throughout campus’ Erb Memorial Union, on several street lamps on Eugene’s Coburg Road and Ferry Street Bridge and at bus shelters throughout Portland. Members of AHA also passed out posters at every Pac-12 conference home game, with a player or two featured each game. Two hundred were produced each time, complete with an individual “Witness the Wonder” logo stamp, signifying the order in which they were passed out, on the poster’s back. The first 150 fans to arrive had the opportunity to collect a poster, with the remaining 50 being passed out throughout the game to young kids in the crowd.
“A lot of people started to get the idea that if they attended games they could get these posters,” Russaw-Levesque said. “Word of mouth kind of spread from that.”
The word spread quickly, and soon the social media-driven campaign was picking up steam. A local news channel highlighted the project and the agency received rave-review calls about its efforts to highlight the female athletes.
“We talked to a group of 70-or-so-year-old ladies who went to UO back in the day and they couldn’t stop gushing about it,” Merdler said.
This year, the Ducks’ popularity has reached new heights. The arena is filled wall-to-wall nearly every game and, more impressively, the fans stay until the end. The team’s attendance is one of the highest in the nation and far outpaces that of many men’s programs, including Oregon’s.
“It’s been incredible to see,'' Merdler said. “The players are the ones who are doing all of the work, they’re insanely amazing. I think it’s kind of rare for an ad school to take on women’s basketball as a client and so we have been able to give them a platform that I don’t think they have been able to get anywhere else.
“And seeing all of the little girls, the upcoming players — Everytime we see something on social media where a little girl is holding up a poster or on the jumbotron, you can see the excitement.”
The ad team made sure to get players’ input throughout the design process. Given that several of the players are journalism majors, these interactions frequently took place in classes where classmates would share sneak peeks but nothing more, keeping the players intentionally in the dark.
A few weeks ago, as Oregon’s season was coming to a close, AHA members had a chance to meet with the team and, at long last, present each player with copies of their posters, as well as a copy of each of their teammates.
“The artwork that they do is amazing,” freshman guard Jaz Shelley said of AHA’s campaign. “The stuff in the EMU really gives light to women’s basketball, and it’s really cool that our school supports it so much.”
While it’s Shelley’s first year on campus, several of the other players have been a part of the campaign for years now and appreciate its growth.
“I love the Wonder Ducks campaign,” WNBA-bound junior forward Satou Sabally said. “Minyon [Moore’s] was also up in Portland on bus stops and just seeing each other somewhere, you know we always take pictures and send it to each other. It’s just nice to get recognition and see all the love that the city has for us. We see that and just feel so much love and feel that we are recognized.”
As thankful as the players are for the exposure, the AHA team is thankful, too. The opportunity allowed them to make a difference in the community around them — one that they see the benefits of every day.
“The most fulfilling thing for me was seeing the work that came out of [our] team,” Russaw-Levesque said. “Seeing these players get the attention that they deserve has been awesome as well.”
Russaw-Levesque, Merdler and many of AHA’s other members will graduate from UO this spring. But next year’s AHA team is set to continue the partnership with the basketball program for a fourth year in a row. With the departure of longtime stars Ionescu, Hebard and Sabally, next year’s campaign will be as important as ever, as AHA introduces the next generation of Ducks players to fans.