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Football, festivity, and music

By Ron Rodman


Sports fans eagerly anticipate television broadcasts of their favorite sports, whether it is baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, boxing, golf, auto racing, or any of the other events aired on the tube. In the USA, the biggest television sports event is undoubtedly (American) professional football: the National Football League. In 2011, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” was the highest-rated program on American TV; nine of the ten most-watched shows that year were NFL games or pregame shows (the other was the Academy Awards), and each of the 21 biggest audiences in TV history are Super Bowls. Football’s popularity may be attributed to the coincidence of the NFL season with the American holiday season (i.e., Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza, New Year’s Day, etc.). For many sports fans, football on TV is synonymous with the holidays, and vice versa.  One might say that football is part of American holiday festivities.

Professional football was broadcast on television as far back as 1939, when the Philadelphia Eagles played the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 22nd. Games were not telecast with any regularity until the 1950s, but after the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants — the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played” — football on television gained an enthusiastic following. The DuMont Network and ABC broadcast games in these early years, but NBC and CBS soon bought the rights to broadcast all professional football, with CBS broadcasting the NFL games, and NBC broadcasting AFL games.

By the early 1970s, NFL football became so popular that telecasts featured “pregame shows” that had high quality sets, analytical commentators (many of whom were former players or coaches) and, of course, catchy musical themes — all done to add an air of festivity to the broadcasts of the games. CBS offered one of the first pregame shows dating back to 1961, eventually becoming “The NFL Today,” in the 1970’s. The program was introduced by an upbeat, “light rock” musical theme, with a sort of light rock motif.

The theme was updated in 1982, adding a disco-style “wah-wah” guitar, and omitting the trombone glissando.

The arrangement was tweaked again in 1983, with the alteration of computer-generated visual images.

Not to be outdone, NBC had their own pregame show, “The NFL on NBC.” NBC became the sole broadcaster for AFL football games in 1964, and when the league merged with the NFL in 1970, NBC retained rights to the AFC games, with CBS taking the NFC. (ABC began airing “Monday Night Football” in 1977.)

The musical theme of “The NFL on NBC” in 1973 featured a driving brass section with “wah-wah” guitar, and a jazz-like sax solo:

Unlike CBS, NBC changed its musical themes frequently. Here’s composer by John Colby’s 1992 theme to the show:

And the 1995-97 version by Randy Edelman:

Like the CBS theme, the latter two NBC themes are festive, almost joyful, reflecting the playful nature of sports telecasts.

The Fox Network entered the NFL TV market in 1994 when the network outbid CBS for NFC games. The theme for its show, “Fox NFL Sunday,” was composed by Scott Schreer, Reed Hays, and Phil Garrod, who pitched three separate songs to Fox, who then spliced them together into one.

The use of the minor key and heavy percussion of the Fox theme creates a more serious tone than the more laid-back light jazz/rock themes of its predecessor. The theme leads to a perception that the broadcast is less about a festive game of skilled athletes, and more about a life-or-death combat by gladiators.

Fox’s gladiatorial theme was soon imitated by both NBC and CBS, who in turn used minor key, martial music for their own broadcasts. In my September blog post, I wrote about John Williams’ theme to NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” called by at least one fan as “Football’s Imperial March.”

What caused the shift from festive athletes to combative gladiators in American pro football TV broadcasts? It may have much to do with America’s militaristic posture during the past decade (two wars fought), or television networks’ desire to align the game with the combative, hyper-masculine ethos that emerged from the post 9/11 era.

However, I would contend that we haven’t lost the festive spirit completely in pro football on TV. While the “Fox NFL Sunday” theme has become nearly synonymous with the NFL with its serious, militaristic tone, if we listen to the opening motif of the theme, we might detect a resemblance to a portion of a famous winter holiday song:

The song is Leroy Anderson’s famous “Sleigh Ride,” sung here in a classic recording by Johnny Mathis. The melody at the beginning of the “B” section (“Giddy up! Giddy up! Giddy up! Let’s go!”) has a melodic profile identical to the beginning of the Fox football theme. Here is a melodic comparison:

So, did Schreer, Hays, and Garrod get their inspiration from a festive holiday song? Maybe televised football hasn’t lost its festive spirit after all!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Ron Rodman is Dye Family Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tuning In: American Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Read his previous blog posts on music and television.

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Image credit: Image courtesy of Ron Rodman. Do not reproduce without permission.

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