SB Nation

Seth Matlins | February 1, 2013

Are you ready for some marketing?

How sports became product placement for music

I wasn’t there so I can’t swear to it. Still, I’m pretty sure that as the lions circled their prey in the Coliseum, a Roman emperor, maybe Nero, had someone playing lute, banging a drum or two rocks together, and shaking their toga-clad hips as archaic precursor to Beyonce.

Even an emperor has to do something to keep the crowd interested and entertained between innings or halves or victims. Even before 2-screen viewing, games have always had more to them then just what happens on their fields of play. And so ensuring the game is also a show is but one part of the reason music and sports are, and have really always been, synonymous.

From these ancient times to more recent, from college marching bands to the genius that was Steve Sabol at NFL Films; from Gary Glitter to Chumbawamba and The Baha Men; from banging the seats on a high school bus chanting "We Will Rock You" (as I did as an 87-pound wide receiver in 1979, where I was but one of only two kids not to get any playing time. I should so get over this); to cheerleaders shaking their pompoms to Beyonce to "Seven Nation Army," music has pretty much forever played some part in the presentation and the experience of sports in venue and on screen.

music has pretty much forever played some part in the presentation and the experience of sports

What’s also just as true is that the businesses of both sports and music have changed significantly since Nero, and these changes have helped make sports and music more entwined, and each more a dependent part of the selling of the other than ever before.

I’ve got some experience here, having spent most of my career at the intersection of marketing, sports, entertainment and music, so to keep this pretty simple and topline, two things happened, driven by similar if not the same forces.

One was an increase in the number of available games on TV (and online), which exploded like a bottle of Diet Coke with Mentos in it (and has had a subsequent cause and effect relationship on everything from rights fees to licensing to sponsorship; in other words, money).

Second, the music industry’s traditional sources of promotion (radio and MTV) and revenue (record sales) started shrinking (in other words, money).

Yet despite the different directions the two industries were (and arguably are still) heading, as the volume of sports programming on TV exploded, so did a need to expand the programming’s playlists literally and figuratively. No longer would John Tesh alone suffice, and an even more inextricable link was built.

And whether in spite of or because of the growth of sports broadcasts, from the NFL to the X Games, there was an increased need for the owners and broadcasters of these leagues and properties to enhance the experiential, cultural, entertainment, and social value of the games’ presentation. In a world of increasingly fragmented attentions, when many of us are looking down at our phones when the play is taking place up on the field, how else will you sell more commercials, tickets, sponsorships, bobbleheads and billboards?

But regardless of how much some things have changed, what remains the same, from Nero to now, is the import of ticket sales, ratings and money.

And in today’s business environment, revenue growth doesn’t beget growth, it begets the pressure to find new ways to sustain that growth, which is just part of the reason that most every time-out, pitching change and penalty is brought to you by one sponsor or another (think the Viagra Big Moment of the Game – which doesn’t yet exist but I think we’d all agree it could) and why halftime shows have become spectacles and events unto themselves (think Justin and Janet and "wardrobe malfunctions" just for posterity’s sake) and not just filler between halves.

how else do you make 12 minutes of actual ball-in-play feel like it’s worth three hours of your time?

And, really, but for entertainment in whatever guise it takes, whether color-commentary or Alicia Keys, how else do you make 12 minutes of actual ball-in-play feel like it’s worth three hours of your time?

So the leagues and their broadcast partners needed more music for a variety of reasons at just the same time that the music industry needed more promotion to make up for what it lost as MTV went to the Jersey Shore, amongst many other things.

While co-incidental economic necessity is bringing them together, the glue holding these partnerships together is television.

For sports, television has been the key driver of the growth and cultural import and export of the leagues and their athletes globally. Kobe, Peyton and Jeter jerseys didn’t become big sellers overseas because of all the ex-pats living abroad.

For music though, while it would be wildly hyperbolic to consider TV a key driver of industry growth in the post-music-television era, it’s become an increasingly important part of the promotional mix for artists willing and able to take advantage of the stage the leagues and their broadcast partners provide. As example, when I first thought about this essay, Springsteen’s "This Train," a song I’d absolutely not have heard but for this promotion, was all but inescapable during the MLB Division Series. And as I write this essay, Beyonce has left the Inaugural Stage (and hopefully "BeyonceGate") behind and is no doubt working on the rough draft of her Super Bowl Halftime performance.

Just as TV serves as the pipe making the Super Bowl and Beyonce a shared moment for most of the world, and just as it brings the NBA’s All-Star Game into the homes of a bazillion people in 214 countries, it’s also becoming an increasingly important position-player (nice, right?) in the promotion and sales of an artist’s singles, albums, concert tickets and T-shirts. Which is why doing an NBA All-Star Game or a Super Bowl National Antherm or Halftime Show are coveted by artist, artist management and the labels as much as by the leagues and their broadcast partners. There ain’t no stage like these.

it’s about the show, the experience, and the sum of the parts

Indeed for many (including the audience and advertisers … and thus the event owners), it’s really no longer just about the game … it’s about the show, the experience, and the sum of the parts. As the longtime voice of big-time NFL telecasts, Al Michaels is quoted as saying "We have a big tent and invite everybody into it. This is not for football fans only." But we’re watching a football game … or are we?

This truth is certainly not limited to the NFL, or even the Big 3. It’s part and parcel of why the NBA defines itself as a "sports and entertainment [league]"; it’s why ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, has a music section on, and why most all the leagues, the X Games, and probably even the PBA have playlists coming out their proverbial yin-yangs.

(In fact, according to the WSJ, the single most popular feature in’s "At the Ballpark" app is the feature linking you directly to iTunes to buy the songs Derek Jeter and Miguel Cabrera -- amongst a lot of others -- have played in the stadium when they come up to bat. All just reinforcing that while "music and sports are so synonymous" so are music and sports and commerce.)

As long as it doesn’t detract from the game, expanding the entertainment value of the show helps attract people and advertisers and thus, money. And that’s good, right? To these ends, the leagues and networks use music. Because in today’s media environment they’re competing for ad dollars and your hearts, minds, and 24-ounce beer dollars with everyone from Netflix, to World of Warcraft, to your DVR and iEverythings.

Music needs sports, and the presentation of sports needs music. In and of itself, there’s nothing wildly new about this, to my earlier point about Nero.

What’s relatively new, however, is the business model governing this mutual admiration society, and the amount of money that’s changing hands as the biggest artists in the world lend leagues and networks their tunes for your ears to paraphrase Lennon and McCartney.

How much money typically changes hands these days? Pretty much, um, none; a reflection of both the relative power and promotional value of TV and the circumstances of recording/touring artists.

the desire for short-term cash is often replaced by the need for longer-term promotion

Today, the desire for short-term cash is often replaced by the need for longer-term promotion. This creates a basis for an exchange of value between the parties, not just money. Here, TBS as example, gives, oh say, Bruce, their media in exchange for his song and performance.

It works for him as a promotional platform for a new album and tour, and it works for MLB and TBS as a thematic and creative hook ("Land of Hope And Dreams", get it?) that brings a little more cultural currency to their audience and playoff tune-ins. It’s a baseball-themed music video.

And whether the relationship begins with the league, the network, a label, manager or a music sync house, there has to be creative alignment between lyric, action and audience. While Bruce performed at the Super Bowl four years ago, and has now lent "Land of Hope and Dreams" to last season’s Playoffs, he’s probably less likely to show up in the midst of an NBA promotion or All-Star game, as he’s somewhat less brand and demographically aligned than Rhianna, Pitbull, and Fun.

The time when the leagues and their broadcast partners at the networks had to both cajole and pay the artists (and their labels and publishers) for usage rights, are gone, as is the time when the biggest artists could afford to be more precious about where they placed their music outside of the album, radio or the concert hall.

As Irving Azoff, the legendary music manager was recently quoted as saying:

"In an earlier age, a hit record would help you sell out three days in Los Angeles, he said. Now you can’t get a hit, and if you do, you open for someone in a club. It used to be that no one wanted to go on a music competition show. Now everyone wants to appear on ‘American Idol’ and ‘The Voice.’"

Would the likes of a Bruce or a U2 have done commercial work just for the exposure ands air-time if not for the fundamental changes in their business? Maybe, but I doubt it.

At a time when it’s "all about exposure for the artists on-cycle," the leverage and upper-hand in this relationship is the leagues’ and the networks’. Bruce may be The Boss, but he’s not The King, and as Mel Brooks said "It’s good to be the king."

In a world still governed by supply and demand, and at the risk of getting all technical, there’s way fewer TV networks than there are bands trying to sell songs.

Necessity has long been the mother of invention, and today marketing necessity is the mother of increasing integration between music and sports … integration, which by any other name might be considered product placement; or "mutually beneficial promotion" as one league exec said to me.

Yes, product placement. Just as E.T. followed a trail of Reese’s Pieces as he looked for a way home; just as the judges on "American Idol" sit behind Coca-Cola cups; just as James Bond steps to and from an Aston Martin.

These days, even the biggest music artists in the world are hoping that by placing their songs (and sometimes their selves) inside sports programming (from broadcasts to video games) you and your wallet will follow the trail like so many Reese’s Pieces to their concerts, albums, singles, and merchandise.

Think Bruce and Faith Hill and Linkin Park and Cee-Lo.

Of course, product placement isn’t new in sports. It first became a real part of the game when Gatorade put its coolers and cups on sidelines, though no one thought of it as product placement back then.

It was taken to the next level by the sneaker wars between Nike and Reebok in the 80s and revitalized today as Tom Brady (Under Armour) and RGIII (Adidas) work to hide their Nike Swoosh emblazoned official uniforms as I type, recognizing that (as beach volleyball players, tennis players and the 1992 Dream Team have) in today’s media landscape … they themselves are media and a sponsor’s billboard.

For broadcasters the technological advance that at the time (circa 1989) was Dorna's rotating signage (perhaps more accurately considered ad placement) helped drive home the point that even the sidelines were a lucrative source of in-game "sponsorship" and "signage" revenues. It’s like the old saw about the three things that make for a good real-estate investment – location, location, location – and TV owns the best location.

Today, if you watch the Faith Hill "open" for "Sunday Night Football," (the first sports series to finish No. 1 in prime time last year), you were as likely to see one of the Mannings or Ray Lewis as you were the league and broadcast sponsor Verizon, or a promo for "The Voice," not surprisingly, also on NBC. Necessity and economic opportunity again mothering integration.

To put it in the context of traditional advertising (and advertisers), which has for so long been a driving force in the distribution of sports, in 1995, Microsoft was rumored to have spent $10 million to license the Rolling Stones’ "Start Me Up" for the release of Windows 95.

Only seven years later, things had changed enough (but nowhere as much as they were about to) so that in 2002, Apple is rumored to have paid nothing to license U2’s image, performance and song, "Vertigo," for the launch of the iPod.

Bono’s philanthropic and all, but if rumor is truth, why would U2 do this? Because the world and their business had changed. And because the world’s biggest rock and roll band (and their label) knew that the exposure and promotional value they’d get – and the money they’d make as a result – was more important than whatever license and talent fee they might otherwise get paid.

Now, the currency driving these transactions is less likely to be cash and more likely to be an exchange of value between the leagues, their broadcast partners and the musicians (and in the case of this year’s Super Bowl, league sponsors and event advertisers like Pepsi, who as you may have heard has a $50 million deal with Beyonce.) You show me yours, I mean you give me yours, and I’ll give you mine. Win/win.

In today’s world, content (in the form of TV broadcast opens, closes, promotions, haftimes, all-star games) has become media … a pipe by which more content (in the form of Bruce, Madonna, Beyonce, whomever) gets to an audience that they might not otherwise be able to reach – or certainly one they wouldn’t be able to reach at this moment and in this way.

There are exceptions, but by and large this is the new reality and model, and holds for Super Bowl haftime shows, for the Olympics, for network playoff tune-ins, for the theme songs to a weekly football or NASCAR broadcast.

Beyonce will reach and sing for far more of us at haftime than she will across the breadth of any tour

Some of the biggest names in music are now lending their voices, songs and performances to the stage that is sports, whether in stadium and/or on-screen. While a TBS playoff spot may not be what Carson’s stage once was for breaking a comedian, or what an appearance on SNL or Letterman wants to be, in a hyper-fragmented, two-screen world, everything helps … and Beyonce will reach and sing for far more of us at haftime than she will across the breadth of any tour.

While the games have stayed more or less the same, what and who surrounds the game continues to evolve. As relates to the evolving nature of the relationship between the businesses of sports and music, it seems everybody wins. The artists and their management teams get exposure, the leagues and their broadcasters get more entertainment value for fewer dollars out-of-pocket. And the fans, we get Beyonce and not John Tesh in our living rooms. Nothing wrong with that.

About the Author

Seth Matlins is the founder of That Was Then Enterprises, a brand and Intellectual Property development company.

Before starting That Was Then, in May 2010, Seth was Global Chief Marketing Officer for Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter.

Prior to joining Live Nation, Seth had been at Creative Artists Agency for nearly 9 years, which he joined after serving as President of Rock the Vote, a non-profit organization.

He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and 2 kids.

Loading comments...