ESPN’s Music Focus: How Athletes and Artists Are Learning From Each Other

Plus the network's notable music campaigns

In recent years, ESPN's music focus has come to rival that of MTV. The cable network uses songs from diverse artists to bolster its sports coverage—and makes music a regular feature of its glossy magazine to entice readers and ad dollars.

ESPN The Magazine's third "Music Issue" dropped last Friday, once again ranking among the year's top editions. "There are great stories to be told in how jocks and musicians are driving the conversation around social change," says Chad Millman, editor in chief of the magazine and Artists and athletes are "learning from each other to reshape their respective industries and manage their careers, lives and how the public perceives them. Those are the elements we try to capture when we do this issue."

Meanwhile, the network side of the business might be running more music-related content than MTV, albeit with a different focus. "The music and sports industries have very similar fan bases," says Claude Mitchell, ESPN's coordinating director of music, "so there are natural opportunities for a crossover partnership to reach those audiences." ESPN takes this commitment very seriously, striving "to develop more creative and innovative ways of incorporating music into our content that goes beyond the standard in-and-out-of-commercial-break usage."

Fall Out Boy is one example. Its song "Centuries" was in heavy rotation on ESPN during the 2014 college football season. Its pulsing, epic tones were integrated into almost every aspect of the net's coverage, from studio telecasts and on-air promotions to glitzy highlight packages.

"The reason 'Centuries' worked so well is because it sounds like the song was written for the event," says Mitchell. "The end product has been a campaign that greatly benefited both sides—and the birth of a new sports anthem." (All that exposure helped the track become a certified million seller, while its official YouTube video earned more than 17.7 million views in three months.)

Three other notable ESPN music campaigns include:

1. U2-driven spots touting FIFA World Cup coverage in 2006 and 2010

Along with the band's trademark riffs, the clips included heartfelt voiceovers by group members, including frontman Bono, about the tournament uniting the nations of the world in peaceful competition.

2. Jack White's efforts for World Cup 2014

"Jack asked his management to reach out to us about ways we could incorporate the song 'Seven Nation Army' … into our coverage after seeing what we did with U2," Mitchell says. "He was aware of the following that song had with soccer fans. We were ultimately able to provide exposure for the album he was releasing at the time."

3. Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett on SportsCenter

During last year's U.S. Open tennis tournament, songs from the unlikely partners' album of duets and special video content were integrated into nightly telecasts.

Forging such relationships is "a two-way street that includes a free-flowing exchange of ideas during daily conversations with industry representatives," says Mitchell. "We now have artists thinking about ESPN platforms as they create their strategy for releasing singles and albums, and approaching us on how we can replicate something they've seen us do on air for their peers."

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