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Big Game, Big Pay? A Look at Music’s Use in Sports

Before the Barnum-esque spectacle of the Big Game are the songs that pump up players and fans in stadiums and arenas throughout the season.

The Seahawks jam to the Verve‘s “Bittersweet Symphony” and have big love for Macklemore. The Patriots favor Ozzy Osbourne‘s “Crazy Train” and Bon Jovi‘s “This Is Our House.”

Before the Barnum-esque spectacle of the Big Game are the songs that pump up players and fans in stadiums and arenas throughout the season. While teams tend to have their staples, the opportunity for new music exposure is expanding as ticket prices rise.


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“It’s not an inexpensive proposition to go to a professional or collegiate sports event. From the moment the doors open until they close, they are looking to provide a wow experience at the venue,” says Fred Traube, owner of Pro Sports Music Marketing, which brokers deals for music played at pro and collegiate games.

“It all comes down to the song and the message the team is looking to relay,” Traube says. “Certainly a superstar is going to get much more consideration than an unknown band, but the playing field is pretty even. If there’s an artist no one’s heard of but the song is perfect, that’s going to win out over a superstar.”

Case in song-perfection point is Gavin DeGraw‘s “Fire,” released last July. “The first time I heard it I said, ‘I’m done, I don’t need anything else,'” recalls Karen Lamberton, svp film & TV music and strategic marketing at RCA, who scored big after pitching the anthemic song to teams as well as networks covering sports. 

“Fire” became a staple on CBS’ NFL Thursday Night Kickoff games. Major League Baseball used it in post-season programming. Fox Sports played it across a variety of sports coverage. It had play on Golf Channel, ESPN, NFL Network and NASCAR television coverage, to name some but not all. And the momentum spiraled beyond the sports world when the song landed on The Biggest Loser — DeGraw even sang it live on the show on Jan. 8. “I don’t think we would’ve gotten Biggest Loser if we didn’t have all that momentum from sports,” she says.

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“The teams are the ones who have critical mass, the ability to reach eyeballs and ears,” Traube says. “It’s become much more competitive and much more valuable real estate, particularly in the rock genre. There’s such a dearth of rock radio, it’s tough to reach that passionate rock consumer.” Because games tend to eschew the DVR trend, there’s also a good chance fans at home may catch stadium-play song snippets live on their flat screen.

But with no licensing fee attached to songs that pulse through the loudspeaker at the game — they’re generally covered by public performance rights — the business model is a mixed bag. Publishers and artists who own their music get paid for in-stadium play, while labels earn licensing fees only when the song is used for televised promos, advertising and coverage by the networks or leagues.  

“I’m pitching masters, because I want them to be used in circumstances where they’re televised because then I can make a licensing fee,” Lamberton says. “Exposure is great, but my job is also to bring income in and I’m not necessarily getting a master use fee when [the song] is used in the stadium.” 

“The danger that I always try to let people I’m working with know is, ‘Don’t look at sports as a high revenue source,'” Traube says. “The greatest ability of sports is to help you reach your consumer in an authentic way.”

And although labels don’t get paid upfront, they aren’t paying exorbitant fees to tap the collective emotional well of sports fans. “If a consumer products brand wanted to have that kind of commercial spot load in an [arena], you’re looking to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Traube says. “Because music enhances the live experience, you can obtain similar benefits at literally no cost, in exchange for us to be able to grant usage rights.”

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“The stadium play is important because that’s where it first starts,” says Brian Nolan, vp creative agency, at Columbia Records. “And it’s very organic. Sometimes we’ll hear what’s being played in a stadium when a network is doing a live broadcast and we’ll know, say, this is a song the Carolina Panthers fans are familiar with, let’s try to get into a network broadcast deal. It’s very important to be aware of what’s pumping up the players and the crowds.”

Savviness about the types of songs that connect with fans helped Nolan land AC/DC‘s “Play Ball” for TBS’ post-season MLB coverage, and also led to ESPN licensing 20 records across the Columbia roster, from Pharrell to No Wyld, within a four-month period for college football coverage. “We had this influx of music that was uptempo and fit within the college aesthetic. ESPN has gotten good at doing label deals. They want as much as possible, and it’s a huge win for us.” Nolan says Columbia has licensed 95 percent of the records it pitches for sports television.

Yard Markers

As the business grows, measuring the success of song plays in a sports environment is becoming more critical. “Any time you can get a concentrated amount of people in one space, it definitely helps move the needle,” says Columbia’s Nolan. “Social media and Shazam are the two places where you can see it moving in real-time.”

“We’ll look at iTunes sales and watch Shazam to see if a lot of a lot of people are tracking the song,” RCA’s Lamberton notes. “Shazam has become an important metric for our radio team. The promo guys use Shazam metrics when talking to programmers in order to make programmers understand impact.”

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When there’s a live performance component, as there will be when Christina Aguilera opens the NBA All-Star game Feb. 15, other analytics come into play. “With Christina, hopefully her social will improve so we’ll see people looking her up on Wikipedia, tweeting about her,” Lamberton says. “We look at how many tweets there are about the event, and depending on what song she sings we’ll look into sales.”

As important as the music-fan connection is during the regular season, there’s no denying the sheer volume of viewers who will be tuning in to watch the Seahawks and Pats on Super Bowl Sunday. Lamberton says she always has her eye on the big win. “We pitch sports aggressively,” she says. “And the hope is one day we get that Super Bowl opportunity.”