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Watersmeet Nimrods: Life After the Spotlight

A dozen years after the ESPN spot, Watersmeet (pop. 1,383) is pretty much back to normal.

THEN: The Nimrods, a high school basketball team in Watersmeet, Mich., appeared in Kiplinger’s in 2004 after the team and the town were featured in an ESPN commercial for the team’s unusual name (taken from a biblical warrior) and the town’s outsize school spirit. The TV spotlight garnered national attention for the team and coach George Peterson, including an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Sales of team merchandise skyrocketed to more than $130,000 over a few months.

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NOW: Team merchandise sales generated by the ESPN commercial and resulting publicity eventually topped $500,000. The school used the proceeds to set up a fund that continues to provide scholarships for Watersmeet graduates who go to college.

A later attempt to capitalize on the Nimrod name was less successful. In 2007, the Sundance Channel produced Nimrod Nation, an eight-part documentary that tracked life in the small town over a single basketball season. Led to believe that team merchandise sales would grow exponentially after the show aired, the school paid a law firm $1,700 an hour, to the tune of $67,800, to secure trademarks for the Nimrod name and logo. The documentary “wasn’t as popular as the ESPN commercial,” says Peterson, still the basketball coach (as well as the school principal). “After all was said and done, we didn’t make a lot of money.”

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The series proved to be a letdown for many locals as well, says Peterson. “People from our area thought it portrayed us as something we weren’t. It seemed as if people were baited to act a certain way for the benefit of the show. But most of the people from out of our area loved it.”

A dozen years after the ESPN spot, Watersmeet (pop. 1,383) is pretty much back to normal. The current basketball team members, most of whom were in second grade when the ESPN commercial aired, barely remember the 2004 team and, as of early January, had yet to post a victory. “We have a lot of talent, but it’s a young team. It has to develop,” says Peterson. Merchandise sales run a respectable but not spectacular $5,000 to $10,000 a year. As for Peterson, he still marvels at Watersmeet’s brief encounter with fame. “There are days when I wake up and pinch myself,” he says. “I can’t believe it happened to little old Watersmeet.”

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