SBJ/January 19 - 25, 2004/SBJ In Depth
Striking a chord with consumers
Published January 19, 2004
How times have changed. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Michael Jordan generated several days' worth of sports business headlines as reporters wrote about how Mr. Nike would get around having to wear a Reebok warm-up suit at the basketball medal ceremony. (A U.S. flag draped around his shoulders covered the offending logo.)
In 2003, the year's biggest endorser-in-the-wrong-athletic-apparel story involved the same two brands; it also took place at a basketball arena. But this time, it was a musician, not an athlete, who made headlines. Hip-hop star Jay-Z was interviewed on ESPN during an NBA game in Cleveland. The musician, who had recently signed a marketing agreement with Reebok, was wearing Nike shoes.
Though it was mentioned on "SportsCenter" and in this publication, the incident was actually of little consequence to the sports business world except for one thing: It might have signaled the dawn of a new era in the marriage of music and big-time sports.
Certainly, the combination of sports and music is nothing new. But their assimilation has accelerated dramatically in the last few years, spurred by the growing use by major sports brands of musicians as endorsers and the increasing sophistication of music events orchestrated by the major sports leagues.
That non-athletes are being signed to push athletic apparel and that entertainers' wardrobes are being scrutinized by the sports business press is only one result of the trend.
The movement has taken off in large part because of supply and demand. On the supply side, a music industry facing declining sales of CDs is seeking new channels to promote new artists and releases. The impact that appearances at nationally televised sporting events have had should keep artists interested in sports for the foreseeable future.
In fact, musicians often don't receive direct payment for appearances because labels and artists' management are satisfied to make money in increased music downloads or CD sales that inevitably follow high-profile performances.
"There are few events like NBA All-Star weekend or the Super Bowl where the whole world is watching," said Charlie Rosenzweig, vice president of entertainment and player marketing at the NBA. "In most cases, [money] isn't even brought up. It's not about talent fees; it's about working together."
One performer who saw an NBA-generated sales spike is Christina Aguilera, who performed one of her hit songs for a 2003 All-Star weekend broadcast.
"You can absolutely track those events straight to record sales," said Irving Azoff, who manages Aguilera, as well as Seal and Jewel. "Appearing at a [nationally televised] NBA event has great commercial value. It's much more effective than awards shows, morning shows or late night."
According to Rosenzweig, the All-Star appearance had enough of an impact that Aguilera's record company accelerated the release date for another single to coincide with the start of the NBA playoffs, and the NBA agreed to use the song, "Fighter," in TV spots promoting the postseason.
Meanwhile, creating the demand are sports brands and leagues, which are looking for new ways to connect with fans and consumers and are happy to let entertainers bridge the gap. All of this has made bedfellows of marketing agencies and recording labels, video game marketers and artist management, music composers and sports leagues.
NASCAR tunes up
This month NASCAR rolled out its first-ever theme music. The governing body would like the new tune to be the sound — other than revving engines and squealing tires — that fans associate with stock car racing, much as John Tesh's "Roundball Rock" was the signature music for the NBA's run on NBC or John Williams' "Bugler's Dream" is the de facto theme song for the Olympics.
At press time NASCAR was still working on plans for introducing the new theme to fans. But one safe bet is that the association will look to develop awareness through its biggest new sponsor. NASCAR has developed a version of the music for mobile phones, so you can expect Nextel Communications soon to offer the tune as a ring tone.
The theme is merely one facet of a concerted effort to pull popular music into the sport and push stock car racing into mainstream pop culture.
"We want to broaden the fan base and enhance our existing fans' experience with the event," said Sarah Nettinga, who works in NASCAR's Los Angeles office as director of film, television and music entertainment, a position she inaugurated three years ago. "Strategically aligning with the music industry is one way we've been doing that."
Because mass appeal is NASCAR's objective, the league has worked with mainstream acts such as Sheryl Crow, Leann Rimes and Smash Mouth, none of whom are likely to alienate many existing or potential fans. But Nettinga said it also is vital that performers who appear in NASCAR media are actually stock car devotees.
How does the association know which stars are fans? "We talk to the labels on a regular basis; there isn't any label we don't have contact with," Nettinga said. "And they're smart because they're figuring out what the [artist's] hook is as well."
One of Nettinga's major league counterparts is Tracy Perlman, director of entertainment marketing at the NFL. Perlman meets monthly with record company executives to determine which artists' upcoming album releases and concert tour promotions will be generating buzz around jewel events such as the Super Bowl and Kickoff Live.
While league sponsors don't necessarily determine who plays those events, they do have some input, Perlman said. Indeed, two performers at the 2003 Kickoff concert also are endorsers for league partners: Mary J. Blige for Reebok and Britney Spears for Pepsi.
Executives tend to agree that all parties are best served when the record labels select musicians for specific appearances, promotions or campaigns. "It's not bad [for a sports property] to have somebody in mind, but it's not always the right question to start with," said Laura Del Greco, vice president, corporate integrated marketing for Warner Music Group. "Sometimes the best artist for a program is someone you've never heard of, but your fans have. Record companies live and breathe by having our finger on the pulse of youth, not only in America but around the world."
Warner made its first foray into auto racing last year. The initiative was driven not by a request from NASCAR but by a promotional opportunity from a race sponsor. Chevrolet approached Del Greco about bringing Warner entertainers into the fold for the NASCAR Winston Cup race it titled. "What Chevy wants is new eyeballs on the brand, test drives and sales," Del Greco said. "What we want is exposure for our artists on national television."
As a result, Warner acts performed during race weekend at September's Chevy Rock & Roll 400, and six Chevrolets in the race carried paint schemes promoting Warner bands, including Hootie and the Blowfish, Third Eye Blind and Uncle Kracker.
Del Greco said Warner still is assessing the partnership's impact on exposure and sales, but it appears the company will explore more sports promotion opportunities. "I don't think we've begun to scratch the surface," Del Greco said. "There are a lot of sports we haven't cracked the nut on."
NASCAR races and other big events are proven showcases for established performers, but new and lesser-known acts seeking publicity through sports have to look elsewhere.
Performers perceived as too new or too cutting-edge for the NFL and NBA often are right at home at events like the Core Tour or ESPN's X Games. Almost every major league stadium and arena blasts recorded music before and after games and during breaks in play. But because punk, new wave and alternative music have been authentic parts of the skateboarding scene, new music seems to fit more naturally at action sports competitions.
"Music is such an integral piece of what we do," said Brian Gass, a partner at Sandbox Marketing, which co-owns the Core Tour. "The athletes are there, but music is the lifeblood of the event." Each event features piped-in recorded music throughout the competition and a live music stage where bands and DJs perform for several hours a day.
Especially for grassroots events like Core Tour, signing emerging bands is a symbiotic venture between the property and record labels. Core uses musicians — including local bands whenever possible — to help draw crowds; the labels know action sports fans are a spot-on target market for new music.
Since the inaugural X Games, ESPN has asked athletes for music recommendations. "To this day, when an athlete registers, they're given the opportunity to list songs they want to hear when they're [competing]," said Chris Stiepock, general manager of the X Games.
To remain TV-friendly, the X Games relies less on live music than does the Core Tour, but ESPN hires a handful of DJs who play music throughout each competition. "The telecast relies on an energized crowd," Stiepock said. "So the DJs are on top of what's hot and what's not, and what gets the crowd going."
Another sports venue that has evolved into a launching pad for emerging artists is neither a stadium nor an arena. Given the amount of uninterrupted time trendsetting teenagers spend playing them, it's no wonder sports video games are increasingly responsible for introducing new acts to national and international audiences.
Case in point: The soundtrack for EA Sports' Madden 2003 football game featured a song called "Get Over It" by the band OK Go. At the time of the game's release, Madden was the only place to hear the song; radio stations hadn't started playing it yet. But at OK Go concerts in the weeks and months after the game debuted, band members noticed fans shouting "Touchdown!" whenever they played the tune, a clear sign they'd heard it first on Madden.
According to Steve Schnur, worldwide executive of music for Electronic Arts, the song's video game-inspired popularity was largely responsible for its first radio airplay.
EA stays in close touch with labels and publishers around the world to stay on top of emerging trends and artists — it's perhaps more important than the leagues' efforts because so much of EA's music comes from lesser-known acts. But the company also maintains a dialogue with marketers at each of its league partners to plan joint promotions, some built around the games' soundtracks.
For example, Jermaine Dupri was one of several hip-hop artists who recorded an original song for EA's NBA Live 2004. Following the game's release, the NBA used Dupri to host a video game competition and MC battle at the NBA Store in New York.
Schnur said record labels now bombard game manufacturers with tapes and requests to include their performers' music. But those who make it onto the games don't pay for the privilege; Electronic Arts still pays publishers a license fee for rights to include their songs, Schnur said.
On their turf
While music companies apparently have found a wellspring of marketing possibilities through sports, league and apparel marketers are starting to figure out how to reach fans by aligning with musicians and concerts.
Reebok has made perhaps the most visible links with musicians (see Reebok sees rappers as ‘must-have’ pitchmen).
Gatorade, whose ads generally depict only athletes and sports imagery, made a subtle break from that practice in its latest TV commercial, which debuted earlier this month. Its "Everywhere" spot is focused on sports, but instead of an athlete, the ad's dominant figure is LL Cool J.
The rap icon's ability to convey lots of information quickly was a primary reason he was chosen. "We wanted to talk about all the places Gatorade is tested and proven," said Joe Burke, senior vice president, creative director at Chicago-based Element 79 Partners, which created the spot. "[The script] had 40 different places to talk about in a 30-second spot."
Danny Schuman, also a senior vice president, creative director at the agency, said it didn't hurt that LL Cool J is "an incredibly fit, sports-minded person" and that he tested well against Gatorade's teenage male target.
Major League Baseball was aiming at a similar target — 16-to-24-year-olds — when it decided to sponsor last year's Lollapalooza and Ozzfest music festivals. The overt objective was to promote its MLB Authentics apparel line; a secondary goal was to drum up new interest in the sport among young fans, said Steve Armus, vice president of licensing.
Last year's Lollapalooza lineup featured bands such as Jane's Addiction, Audioslave and Incubus; Ozzfest performers included Ozzy Osbourne, Korn and Marilyn Manson. Sound a little hard-edged for MLB?
"[In the past,] our music programs have mostly been in-stadium and we've tried to lure people to our games and events," Armus said. "We wanted to engage fans on their turf and let them know we're cool." (It helped, Armus said, that performers were eager to wear MLB caps and jerseys on stage.)
Although it is still completing plans for 2004, Armus said last year's effort was a success: The promotion helped generate 15 percent sales increases for Authentics apparel at retail in markets with tour stops. And of attendees surveyed at the festivals, 83 percent said they thought MLB was "cooler" as a result of baseball's presence at the events.
Sean Brenner is a writer in Chicago.