Sports, Music Tie-Ups at All-Time High as Industries Cast Wide Net

In recent weeks, Drake “hackedESPN’s SportsCenter to announce the date of his forthcoming album release, Certified Lover Boy. Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard appeared in the multi-platinum award winning artist’s newly released “Way 2 Sexy” video. The Worldwide Leader announced Drake would be curating the music for 10 select Monday Night Football games throughout the 2021 season (starting with last Monday’s Baltimore Ravens-Las Vegas Raiders clash). Meanwhile Portland Trailblazers guard Damian Lillard released his fourth album (under the alias Dame D.O.L.L.A.), and rapper Yo Gotti bought an ownership stake in D.C. United.

If it seems like the convergence between sports and music is at an all-time high, those at the intersection say that’s because it is. TrillerNet (the parent company for Triller, Triller Fight Club, Verzuz, FITE and CEO Mahi de Silva explained the desire to appeal to as wide an audience as possible—and attract the desirable 18-34 year old demo—has led sports rights owners and rights holders to “strive to deliver a more appealing experience that mixes sports and entertainment.”

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Our Take: To be clear, we are not suggesting the concept of blending sports with music is anything new. Super Bowl halftime shows have been featuring major acts since the early 1990s (New Kids on the Block performed at Super Bowl XXV).

The difference today is the frequency of collaborations and the reasons they are occurring. Historically speaking, music was used to set the tone of an event (think: in-arena D.J.) and/or to enhance the fan/viewer experience. But teams and leagues are now leaning into the genre in an attempt to cast as wide a net as possible. “Layering in music and big artists is a no-brainer because [maximizing attendance or viewership] really has become about bringing distinct audiences together to create four-quadrant entertainment,” de Silva said.

In theory, four-quadrant entertainment satisfies the needs, wants and expectations of the total addressable market. As de Silva explained, a typical boxing pay-per-view card draws fight sports fans. But by adding music performances and celebrity appearances to the event, it is possible for Triller to attract casual sports fans who enjoys those artists and personalities. “For example, having Snoop involved in our events expands our audience and engagement. It’s not just the live event, it becomes a cultural moment that people talk about for months,” he said.

ESPN music director Kevin Wilson indicated that the broadcast networks also see artist integrations as a means of driving audience (at a time when cord-cutting is resulting in a loss of it). “Where it has become really important for ESPN to look at it is, we share a lot of the same fan bases, but we don’t [have complete overlap]. So, to collaborate is a really smart way to be exposed to [their following] and to have their fans hopefully understand—and get excited about—the sporting events we’re putting on.”

Of course, broadcasters are also looking to provide those who do tune in with the best viewership experience possible, and music helps them tell stories. No different from a movie, the soundtrack to a game can establish the right emotion and “enhance what [the viewer] is watching,” Wilson explained. “You’re always trying to put on the best product you can and grow that product and experience.… You want to try and entertain as much as you can.”

The need to cultivate the next generation of fans has sports rights owners and rights holders looking to appeal to greater youth culture too (no different than the NFL’s partnership with Fortnite). “If we can introduce an 18 year old who hasn’t really experienced boxing, but now associates it with the broader cultural movement, hopefully we’ve started them on a journey of a lasting fan,” de Silva said.

Music integration can also be instrumental in creating a larger cultural moment around a sporting event, de Silva added. “When these experiences cross over, they generate more attention, both before and after,” he said. “So, for Triller, mixing sports with music is brand-building.”

The stiff competition for eyeballs and consumer dollars is another factor in the increasing number of sports and music tie-ups. In theory, the addition of a desirable musical act (or acts) can improve an event’s value proposition.

But that does not mean a rights owner or rights holder can throw any sport and artist together and expect the audience to value the integration (see: booking Nickelback for Thanksgiving halftime). Short- and long-term attendance and viewership gains are byproducts of an improved overall experience.

Like Triller, Big3 has made live music performances a cornerstone of its events. But co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz says the music integrations his league has done are all about appealing to youth culture. In fact, he doesn’t believe fans come out “because Cardi B or T.I. is performing two songs. People attend because of the expectation that when they interact with the Big3, they are going to be interacting with something that is culturally on the pulse,” he said. “It is about creating an overall experience that makes [the 18-34 demo] feel they are a part of the diverse culture of America.” The league supplements its games with a variety of cultural elements—everything from music to BMX and skateboarding exhibitions.

All three of the executives we spoke to expect the frequency of music collaborations and integrations within the sports ecosystem to increase. “More and more music and sports subcultures are flowing in the same places, even more than they used to,” Wilson said. “The two industries are so aligned that [the number of tie-ups will] continue to grow.”

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