Sports Music Gets a Little Less ‘Rowdy’

This month’s parting of the ways between ESPN and Hank Williams Jr., whose “All My Rowdy Friends” jingle has been the theme song for Monday Night Football for more than two decades, underscores how important theme music has become in branding sports broadcasts.

What began with the Chicago Cubs’ introduction of an organist at Wrigley Field in 1941 has led to subliminal Pavlovian-esque associations in viewers’ minds: the first few bars of the martial trumpets of NFL on Fox will immediately conjure up a gridiron no matter where you are. In recent years, individual players have acquired personal theme songs: former Yankees’ outfielder Tony Tarasco used “Tommy’s Theme” by Lox (the cleaned-up version, of course) for plate appearances, and former Atlanta pitcher John Rocker liked to herald his arrival on the mound with “Rock Me Like a Hurricane.”

The emotional association between music and sports is visceral, the way the scent of a box of Crayola crayons transports many people immediately back to childhood. So the loss of “All My Rowdy Friends” on Monday nights hits home.

ESPN had initially suspended the playing of Williams’s performance of the track for one week in the wake of the singer’s comments equating President Obama with Adolf Hitler and characterizing Vice President Joe Biden as “the enemy” during an appearance on the Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends on Oct. 3. The following week, the network announced that it was terminating “All My Rowdy Friends” as the MNF theme song after 22 seasons.

To get a sense of just how important theme songs have become for sports broadcasts, take a look at a top-10 list compiled by the folks at the RealClearSports Website. You’ll hear lots of modal trumpets, from the opening bars of the Wimbledon theme and the aforementioned Fox NFL charge to the oddly mellifluous strains of strings for the UEFA’s Champions League. “Augusta,” the Dave Loggins-penned theme with inoffensive tinkling piano keys and softly plucked acoustic guitar against lush strings, may transport you no further than the inside of an elevator, but it’ll be an elevator at a really, really nice country club. Then there’s John Tesh’s “Roundball Magic” extravaganza, which is equal parts Michael Flatley and Busby Berkeley.

RCS Editor Jeff Briggs, who has two sports themes as ringtones on his cellphone, says the classic martial themes seem to be the most enduring, with the guitar-crunched “All My Rowdy Friends” an exception that might prove the rule.

“The rock-guitar types of themes are less iconic,” he says. “They don’t seem to stand the test of time.”

He finds the ESPN/Hank Williams Jr. contretemps to be “pretty funny, overall,” adding that he didn’t think there would have been much backlash had ESPN simply ignored Williams’s remarks.

The Evolving Opening
Although Williams sang the song for 22 years, the MNF open has always evolved, with new versions created for each season and lyric updates for each team matchup. For the beginning of this season — before Williams’s fateful appearance on Fox News — the vocal and guitar were recorded at Quad Studios in Nashville to tracks recorded by ESPN music producer Edd Kalehoff and lead sound engineer/mixer Brian McGee at Kalehoff Studios in New Rochelle, NY. The final mix-to-picture took place weekly at Kalehoff’s studio.

Over the years, “All My Rowdy Friends” grew into a substantial production number. For this season, ESPN tapped its recently established relationship with media-arts school Full Sail University in Orlando, where 56 students across audio, video, gaming, motion graphics, and other technical disciplines, along with a jersey-wearing crowd from the community at large, took part in a multi-day HD shoot in mid July for the opening video sequence.

Having canned Williams’s song, ESPN opened the Oct. 10 Detroit-Chicago MNF show with a rather earnest video featuring Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders and a soulful-though-generic local gospel choir. Bill Hofheimer, senior director of communications at ESPN, told SVG that the plan for the remainder of the year is to air similar videos in the opening slot that “highlight the participating MNF teams, players, or some key storyline about the game.”

In the run-up to an election year, perhaps nothing is immune from politicization, and Hank Williams Jr. was never a shrinking violet when it came to airing his personal political views. But “All My Rowdy Friends” had become an integral part of autumn Monday nights in America, and it will be missed, but change is part of life. Now, if they can just get someone under 50 to play the Super Bowl halftime show.