Music on Sports Broadcasts Goes Global ⎯ and Younger

Sports and music remain as intertwined as ever, from the theme songs that create aural branding for live shows and packages to the increasingly complex underscores that move the narrative on the court or the field or the track. What’s changing is that the music heard on broadcast sports is becoming more global in nature, foreshadowing next year’s World Cup in Brazil and reflecting the growth of Latino sports franchises and networks. At the same time, it’s also becoming increasingly curated, with shows and networks turning to music supervisors to more closely match the song to the action and the feeling.

“Music supervisors have become extremely important in recent years, especially with the advent of high-definition sound, which makes music selection more important than ever,” observes Peter Alexander, sales manager at music library Sound Ideas.

Music supervisors are now playing a bigger role in what music gets used on television sports. The rubric, once an obscure item in the middle of the end-show credit crawl, has taken on new importance, particularly in films and episodic television series, as the massive cloud of indie music, disenfranchised by the collapse of the traditional music business, seeks paying outlets for its music and as content producers look for lower music-licensing costs.

Some see the two trends — global music and increased curation — as convergent. “We’re seeing far more Latino sports events on television, with events from South America and Mexico, as soccer becomes more important on television,” says Carl Peel, VP of music at the Universal-owned Killer Tracks music library. “But, with that, you have to be extremely careful: if you’re watching something about a Brazilian soccer player but the music behind it is Cuban salsa or Mexican mariachi, unless you’re a gringo, it’s embarrassing. You lose all your credibility with that community.”

Peel says he has honed his attention to detail in sourcing music for this expanding market, noting differences in parameters like tempo and intensity. “There’s a lot of legwork involved, because there’s so much nuance between different Latino countries and cultures. It’s a whole other level of awareness that’s needed.”

Nuance is nothing new for those who pair music and sports, as well as for sports channels and networks, some of which have elevated the status of their outsourced and in-house music gurus. Steve Collins, having worked in music publishing for 25 years and specializing in licenses and clearances, took those skills to Tennis Channel four years ago. Now, in addition to licensing, he’s also refining the channel’s music choices, bringing in songs from artists like Fun., Wolfmother, and Cee Lo Green (all of whom are proven generators of commercially friendly music tracks) to herald the network’s Grand Slam series of event shows, including the US Open and Wimbledon.

The 60 million-70 million viewers the Grand Slam shows attract also provide Collins and his channel — one of the smaller ones in the sea of specialty sports nets — some needed leverage when it comes to licensing fees.

“We don’t have the same kinds of licensing budgets as Fox or ESPN, but that size audience gives us some advantages,” he says, as does strategic partnering with record labels and films to include music from new releases in broadcast windows concurrent with big-draw event shows, in some cases also linking to those music sites from Tennis Channel’s own Website.

Music can also be used as a way to push certain content toward a new audience and pull new eyes and ears to different sports. Collins cites the use, for the US Open last year, of Latin-tinged hip-hop artist Dangerflow’s music, which has also appeared on ESPN’s X Games and Miami Heat games. It’s an edgy pairing and not one you would have heard connected with tennis even a few years ago, but it also seemed to work out well for the artist: according to Collins, the label reported a boost in sales after the shows sired.

“Our market is older, wealthier,” he says, “and I think it’s a mistake to chase just music aimed at that market.”

Even the more conventional musical connections between broadcast sports and music are seeing more finesse and fine-tuning. Killer Tracks’ Carl Peel says hip-hop tracks often have their BPM (beats per minute) increased slightly to make them peppier and brighter.

In addition to more world music, sports broadcasts are experiencing more new music of all types, the outcome of a younger generation of show producers’ choosing their own music, bringing in more-ironic indie tracks, and letting go of the crunchy classic-rock guitars.

Musical pairings are less predicable these days, say some library managers. Sound Ideas’ Peter Alexander notes that golf, for instance, has undergone a musical evolution from pastoral to punk in recent years. “We sometimes hear heavy-rock music on golf shows,” he says, attributing the change to demographics, both younger players and younger sports programming producers. (It may also be a reaction to golf’s population decline — according to a Wall Street Journal article last year, golf may have lost as many as 1 million participants — as a way to attract younger viewers.)

Change But Not So Much
While music for sports programming is taking on a more global feel and more nuanced shadings, don’t discount the power of football and country music. NBC recently announced that, next season, six-time Grammy Award-winner Carrie Underwood will replace Faith Hill to perform “Waiting All Day for Sunday Night,” the opening theme for Sunday Night Football. Hill, who has five Grammys to go with 12 Academy of Country Music and three Country Music Association awards, had sung the opener since 2007. Underwood, who has 10 ACMs and five CMAs, will make her debut on the show on Sept. 8, when the Dallas Cowboys host the New York Giants.

Musical Barometers
For the music industry, getting songs performed at sports events has become a competitive sport of its own. And performing-rights organization BMI’s annual list of the top 10 songs played at sports events (often on the broadcast as well) is also a good way to get a sense of which way the cultural winds are blowing. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” has occupied the top spot for years, but the trend has been towards newer music and a bifurcation between hip-hop and rock, with appearances by Lil Wayne, the Black-eyed Peas, and Jay-Z on one hand and Nickelback, Bush, and Blur on the other. Even Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” has been updated by Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliot. Here’s a recent BMI list:

  1. “We Will Rock You” — Queen
  2. “Let It Rock” — Kevin Rudolf, featuring Lil Wayne
  3. “Burn It To the Ground” — Nickleback
  4. “Boom Boom Pow” — the Black Eyed Peas
  5. “Car Wash” — Christina Aguilera with Missy Elliott
  6. “Fire Burning” — Sean Kingston
  7. “Song 2” — Blur
  8. “Turn My Swag On” — Soulja Boy Tell ’Em
  9. “Run This Town” — Jay-Z, featuring Rihanna and Kanye West
  10. “Machinehead” ¾ Bush

“These kinds of changes are more generational, based on individual producers’ musical tastes,” says Peel. “But that’s been good. There’s more original thinking now when it comes to choosing music for sports on television.”

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