It was March 1994, and Fox Sports president David Hill was on the phone with a new employee. Hill himself was something of a new employee. The network was only a few months old at that point, being built on the fly after Rupert Murdoch had unexpectedly outbid CBS for NFC broadcast rights. Hill was known, if he was known at all, as a Game Boy-playing Aussie curio who did things like lick his male publicist's earlobe "to reward a suggestion." Today, of course, he's a sports media eminence, and how he became one has at least something to do with his phone call that day in 1994.
He was speaking with George Greenberg, the outgoing 38-year-old creative director at ABC Sports. Greenberg had just accepted a job at Fox Sports, and now his new boss was calling from an amusement park with an assignment: Go find the theme song for Fox's NFL coverage.
Look, Hill said. I'm on this long line for the Batman ride. I can't get this theme out of my head. Batman. Give me a superhero. Give me Batman plays football.
Hill told him he had a few days to find it.
What makes for a good sports theme song? What makes it stick? Why do certain songs seem to lodge themselves in the pleasure centers of the brain, while others are forgotten before the first commercial break? Greenberg, now the executive vice president of programming and production at Fox Sports, has a partial answer. "It's associated with moments," he explained to me.
He used an example. The Cowboys take a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter on a touchdown. A replay is shown of that touchdown—say, of a wide receiver keeping both feet in bounds.
"When Joe Buck is saying, 'The Dallas Cowboys are up 13-10,' and you start trickling in that music at a really incredible time where somebody just had an incredible catch, your music becomes associated with a moment, and then it takes you to commercial.
"Can you imagine over 20 years how many great moments we've gone to break with, with this theme song?" Greenberg continued. "It becomes associated with the moment. That's what's doing the trick in your head. We're right there—we're right there when someone makes that incredible catch. And not only is the video there, but our music lives in that moment, too."
Theme songs are a relic of the radio days. They were mood setters, says Tim Brooks, a television and radio historian. (There's also a plausible theory, bruited by TV Tropes, that theme songs helped listeners in the days of channel-less radio pick up the correct stations.) A comedy might have gotten a bouncy number, while a drama might have required something darker. News programs favored the grandiose and stentorian, and so, eventually, did sports broadcasts. Think of the big, cascading first few notes of the fanfare of "Heavy Action," a very 1970s composition by Johnny Pearson that was used initially as the theme for the U.K. show Superstars and adopted in 1978 by Monday Night Football.
There's something to Greenberg's idea of themes attaching themselves to the positive feelings aroused during a game. But that doesn't explain why some songs never manage the feat. Take the theme for ESPN's old Sunday night football game, a swirling, whooshing, pew-pew-pewing number that seems as dated now as the computer graphics that accompanied it. What did "Heavy Action" do that this football theme didn't?
Whatever it is, the difference means something. Theme music "is the first thing you come on with," Greenberg says now. "It sets a mood. It sets a pace. And it sets a tone and intention. It colors a picture for the viewer right away. Within five, eight seconds, whoa: You know this whole presentation. Look at those graphics, listen to that music, look at that beautiful closeup.
"Music," Greenberg says, "can make or break a show."
Greenberg dialed up a friend, a composer named Scott Schreer. On the down low, Greenberg confided, I got this job at a network that Rupert Murdoch's starting called Fox Sports. At the time, Schreer was a studio drummer who also wrote commercial jingles. He'd had, in his words, a modicum of success. He'd worked a little with ABC Sports, helping Wide World of Sports try to reinvent itself in the early '90s, which was how he got to know Greenberg.
I'd love for you to write a piece of music that I can go in there and wow them with, Greenberg told him. Schreer got some direction. This guy David recently took his son or something on the Batman ride in California and he loved the sound of the music, Greenberg said. It should sound something like Batman on steroids. Can you do it?
Schreer wanted to know the deadline. He needed it by Sunday night or Monday morning. "Something ridiculous like that," Schreer tells me. "I had like two days."
Schreer took a breath. He asked what the budget was.
I don't really have a budget, Greenberg told him. Just got hired.
An insanely tight deadline wasn't all that unusual for Schreer. "We were so used to working that way," he says now. He did Snickers commercials. He did Miller Lite and Volkswagen commercials. "We would get a call from agencies that go, 'Hey I just blew my budget on this music and the client hated it and it goes on the air tomorrow. Can you do anything for me tonight?' We were always working to beat the clock, so it was nothing new for us to get a call. Actually, having two or three days was almost a luxury on some level."
So they got to work writing some music. Schreer had a writing group with two other guys. "One guy was Canadian," he recalls, "and the other was a concert cellist." Football fans they were not; Schreer was the closest thing to a sports fan among the three. But they had their instructions: Batman plays football.
"We definitely definitely wanted to put a real dark, manly, masculine football tint to it," Schreer says. There wasn't much of that on the air at the time. "The sports themes were orchestral in nature, but they definitely didn't have that Batman darkness to it." NBC's theme, for instance, was bright and cheery and totally anodyne—Green Lantern plays football, perhaps.
Schreer and Co. went the other direction. "If you listen to great composers like Hans Zimmer or watch movies like Gladiator or Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas movies where everyone went into battle, you're basically facing death," he says. "And death is dark, and football is a dangerous sport. I think why [the theme] works in such a minor key is that it has that combative, warrior vibe to it. It's both conscious and subliminal to the listener. It's how we're coded. It's an association thing."
They banged out something pretty quickly, and then Schreer brought in a band to play it. He paid for this on his own dime. "On spec," he says. "I felt really good about my relationship with George." Within a day, he had a 48-person orchestra—48 people!—playing the demo. How in the world did he get 48 people to show up on such impossibly short notice?
"In New York," he says, "if you want Chinese food at 3 in the morning, no problem." Apparently that applies to French hornists, too.
Schreer created three tracks. They were all in the same key. They were all in the same tempo. They all had the same palate, but melodically they were structured differently. And they all came out great. Schreer's experience with commercials colored every bit of music he wrote. The opening was the key.
"Where I came from, I had to get my melody across in 30 seconds or less," Schreer says of his commercial work. "I always approached writing music with starting off with your best foot forward. Don't wait for the hook. Come out with the hook. Come out swinging. When I created those themes for Fox whether it's"—and here he starts humming the opening to the old Fox MLB theme song, which he also wrote—"for baseball or the NFL theme, we always came out swinging. We put our best foot forward. We put the hook first. We made sure we embedded that so when you heard it over and over again it was subliminally and overtly embedded in your brain."
Schreer had his three tracks by Sunday. He sent them over to Greenberg via special courier. Greenberg was blown away.
"I said, 'Oh my god, this is different,'" Greenberg says. "It's brass. It's big. It's orchestral. There's no sports theme song for football like this on the air. I couldn't hum anything from CBS or NBC. This one is like a movie score! It's huge. I listened to each version. It was dissonant. It was dark."
Hill picked up Greenberg at his hotel in L.A. Greenberg put the CD on in the car.
Holy shit, Hill said. That's it!
Greenberg finished his meeting with Hill. He called Schreer immediately.
You're not going to believe this, Greenberg told him. Hill loved it. He couldn't get over how great the music sounds. He wants to meet you. As a matter of fact, he wants to fly to New York this week.
Schreer still remembers it vividly: "I went to go pick David up at the Rihga Royal Hotel in my Land Rover and I drove him to my studio. I brought him upstairs. David sits in the studio and says: 'Play me that music. Play the first one.'"
Schreer put on the first track.
"Play the second one," Hill told him. A few seconds passed.
"Stop there. I like the intro of number one but I like the body of the work in number two."
You know that part. It's the galloping da-da-duh/da-da-duh/da-da-da-da-duh part. (When I asked New Yorker music writer Alex Ross about the song, the first thing he thought of was Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride.")
Schreer spliced the front of the first track to the body of the second. He hit the play button.
"That's it!" Hill said.
"The NFL on Fox theme is actually two pieces of music," Schreer says. "It's the first eight bars of one piece of music that we did. And the rest of another piece of music that we did. Fortunately I had the foresight to do everything in the same key and the same tempo just in case that happened. We were able to interchange them and it worked out really, really well."
And so it did. Only a few months later, Schreer's 48-person orchestra metastasized. "By the time we were done," he says, "we quadrupled the horns. We added piccolo trumpets. We had four layers of brass trombone—it was ginormous; it was huge. We had full sections of horns and strings and brass. Ginormous!"
So why does this song work so well? How did it become our most iconic sports theme this side (and maybe that side) of "Heavy Action"—big enough that it's now the theme for all Fox Sports properties?
Schreer has his own theory. Well, two of them. The first is the production quality. It's a big sound—nothing like the thin, synthy stuff that was popular in the early 1990s. The second is even more interesting.
"If you listen to the NFL on Fox theme today," Schreer says, "I think what really gels is the rhythm section—everything comes from the center." As Schreer tells it, the drum sample came from a friend, who'd traded for it. The friend told him the sample was a snippet of Jeff Porcaro from Toto. "He gave me Jeff Porcaro's sampled snared drum, which I overlaid on my drums—on top of what I played—to give it that backbeat—that bigger-than-life backbeat," Schreer says. "To this day, if you listen to the NFL on Fox theme, the thing that resonates more than anything on that track is the backbeat on two and four, throughout. When I heard it on TV, I realized that was part of the secret sauce of that track."
I ask Schreer if he realizes just how many people have heard that theme song.
"I was shopping at Christmas at Macy's in New York and it was closing time," he says. "Maybe 10 years ago. As I was going down the escalator, the guy who was mopping the floor was whistling the NFL on Fox theme song. That made my eyes well up."
The CBS and NBC themes that were floating around in 1993 have long been forgotten. When CBS got the NFL back in 1998, it returned to its old theme before abandoning it in 2003. CBS Sports president Sean McManus wanted something new. "He said he was tired of walking into sports bars and hearing the Fox NFL Sunday theme," reported the Houston Chronicle.
"If the music works, we say it has legs," Greenberg says. "How long can it last? How long can it run? Well, we knew—that sound, I'm telling you when we heard it—we knew it would last a long time. And David said it'll never change. It could last another 20 years, easy. It's just got such a classic big sound. When you make the music and you build it big, you probably don't have to revisit it again unless you want to. Gee, it sounds old. It's never going to sound old. It's big, it's full of brass, and it's associated with the greatest moments in sports. Why would you touch it?"
John Koblin, a former Deadspin staff writer, is a Styles reporter for The New York Times.
Additional reporting by Billy Haisley. Image by Jim Cooke.