With Super Bowl Sunday upon us, head back a few weeks to a brisk, clear day outside a café located in Santa Monica, a short stroll from the Pacific Ocean. Twelve miles to the southeast is SoFi Stadium, site of last year’s big game.
The man sitting at the café has had extensive experience with the Super Bowl. Even though he has a powerful understanding of what sports is all about, he’s never played a single down. But he’s left his impact on many a football viewing experience.
Meet Joe Pytka, director of some 80 ads that have run during the Super Bowl. These include spots for Gatorade, Pepsi and Nike.
Sports has long been a particular passion for Pytka. A devoted basketball player, Pytka played for the University of Pittsburgh and often sets up a basketball court on his commercial shoots. The list of athletes Pytka has worked with is a who’s who of sporting achievement, ranging from 1960s icons Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali, to greats from the ‘80s and ‘90s like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, to such contemporary stars as Steph Curry.
But of all the accomplished athletes who’ve come into view on Pytka’s camera, the one who captivated him most was a tennis player: Serena Williams.
Pytka has directed Williams twice, once for Gatorade, the second time for IBM. He was recently reminded of Williams’ compelling qualities while attending a memorial service and hearing the late singer Aretha Franklin’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.
“Serena had this power and charisma that was overwhelming, more than any athlete I’d ever worked with,” he said. As Pytka wrote on his website, “The first time I commented on her stroke looking a little strange and her handler told me she was hitting left-handed. We had to get a male pro to hit with her because the female pro we had hired couldn’t get the ball back properly. She is the most impressive athlete I have worked with, male or female. Magic.”
Pytka estimates that of all the commercials he’s directed, only ten percent have been with tennis players. One reason for this is that Pytka is typically hired to create commercials aimed at extremely large audiences.
“When you have a transcendent athlete like Serena or [John] McEnroe, you reach a big population,” said Pytka. As Pytka sees it, recent players such as Serena, McEnroe and Maria Sharapova had a rare kind of crossover appeal. But attaining that level of cultural status is rare for a tennis player.
With McEnroe, Pytka shot a tennis segment in the 1989 Nike campaign titled “Bo Knows” that featured various athletes evaluating the athletic prowess of football-baseball player Bo Jackson. Pytka was aided during the McEnroe shoot by his friend, veteran teaching pro Doug Dean. McEnroe’s section was filmed at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Dean’s job was to hit user-friendly balls back and forth with McEnroe. Usually, this is an easy task, but on this occasion, it was fraught with pressure.
“Not being a tennis player, Joe wanted to make sure the tennis part was accurate and that the technique was real,” said Dean. “The idea is to give them a nice ball to hit so that they can showcase their talent. Time is money and the clock is ticking, so you don’t want to screw up.”
The hitting part of the shoot went so smoothly that, as Pytka recalls, McEnroe called Dean “a human backboard.” Dean has reprised that role on other occasions too, including a commercial Pytka shot for Nuprin featuring Jimmy Connors, also shot at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.
Sharapova was featured in an ad for camera company Canon. Though Pytka found her exceptionally professional, he also noted that, “It was impossible to connect on any personal level, not that I tried. The Japanese client thought I was a genius, though, because I made her smile.”
Back in the 1970s, Pytka worked with John Newcombe. Though he can’t remember the specific advertiser, he recalls the Aussie star as “a delight, fun. When we chatted, he said that guys like me didn’t have much respect for tennis players as athletes, because we were football and basketball types. I told him I had tried tennis but it was too difficult, so I stuck to the ‘prole’ sports. One thing that blew me away was his hitting lobs sky high and each hitting the baseline precisely.”
Other tennis players Pytka has worked with include Jim Courier (Nike) and Gabriela Sabatini (Pepsi).
Pytka brings as much devotion to his shoots as a world-class athlete does to an upcoming game. Over the years, he’s had many a restless night, concerned about what’s to come the next day on the set. The urgency takes its own twist when Pytka works with athletes, who after all are far less accustomed to such occurrences as pauses of indeterminate length and retakes of the action.
“You have to respect their time, understand their sport,” said Pytka. “As soon as you lose their trust, you’re done.”
So as you watch Super Bowl LVII unfold, ponder Pytka and the discipline, teamwork and skill it takes to create 30 compelling seconds.