Tech Focus: Sports Music, Part 3 — The Network Perspective

The increasingly numerous music libraries spend time looking for ways to appeal to sports broadcasters, which have become a substantial part of their market as the number of dedicated sports channels increases. For their part, broadcasters want to stay abreast of music trends and, at the same time, evoke the spirit behind both their sports and their network brands.

NBC Sports, according to Director of Sound Design Karl Malone, tends toward the traditional when it comes to pairing music with sports events, starting with the Olympics’ regal “Buglers Dream.” The lush Kentucky Derby theme, written and scored by film composer David Arkenstone, has become almost as closely associated with the event as Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“The Olympics and the Kentucky Derby are events with long histories, and I believe the strings, woodwind, and brass relate that very well,” says Malone. Noting that the traditional touches also resonate with NBC’s own image as the nation’s longest-established network broadcaster, he adds, “I think our signature music pieces keep that connection.”

However, when it comes to more muscular sports, NBC can rock with the best of them, with Formula One, NASCAR, and other motorsports firmly in the epic-rock category: the U2-esque track from Mládec called “Russian Circles,” for example, scores the network’s NASCAR promos. But it’s back to classical themes for Stanley Cup Finals spots.

“All in all, I believe we keep tempo with the stature of the event and respect the demographic of our intended audience,” Malone says. (However, a sense of humor came through in the promo for the Premier League’s relegation process on NBCSN.)

On the Edge
ESPN tries to balance three key constituencies when making music choices, synergizing the expectations of the viewer, the esthetic vision of a show’s producers, and the narrative needs of a show or a sport, says Coordinating Director of Music Claude Mitchell, who oversees a department staff of nine between Bristol, CT, and Los Angeles. “Sometimes those three are not completely in line,” he adds, underscoring the challenge of making music work at a time when generational changes make music genres more diffuse.

Mitchell, who has been with ESPN for 15 years, doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that music also has to reflect the network’s overall brand, emphasizing that each show is treated as a separate entity. But ESPN has acquired a cachet of edginess, thanks in no small part to its X Games franchise, which brought artists like the Red Hot Chili Peppers to sports music. And the network continues to work proactively with new artists, as in the curated pairing of R&B duo Lion Babe with the NFL draft this month, which took place in Chicago, the home base of the group, which performed “Move On Up,” a signature song of Windy City native Curtis Mayfield.

At the same time, ESPN has one of the longest-running sports tracks in the SportsCenter theme, written by John Colby, ESPN’s Grammy- and Emmy-winning music director from 1984 to1992. Colby, along with WWE counterpart James Alan “Jim” Johnston, was staff music composer and producer, a rarity at a sports network or department. His long presence, composing and producing music for hundreds of ESPN events and television programs during the network’s early years, helped deeply connect music to the brand.

But it’s arguable that the Hank Williams Jr. controversy in 2011, when the outspoken country-music singer’s criticism of President Obama compelled the network to drop his long-running theme for Monday Night Football, made the synergy of music and broadcast sports a cultural meme. Since then, a slew of top music artists have competed to snare themes for primetime sports shows, including will.i.am, Big & Rich, Jack White, and the current NFL Sunday Night diva, Carrie Underwood.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, Hank had the field to himself,” Mitchell explains, “but, today, when radio has a shrinking palette of music and the film and television side has become more important to building a story around an artist, the connection to sports and network television is more sought after.”

Although the fundamentals, like crunchy guitars and martial drumbeats, will likely remain in place for sports music for years to come, changing national demographics will inevitably influence future music choices. It’s why who will play the following year’s Super Bowl halftime show has become a show in itself, one that starts the day after the previous show is done.

For Tech Focus: Sports Music, Part 1, CLICK HERE.
For Tech Focus: Sports Music, Part 2, CLICK HERE.