Music

From Queen to Lil Jon, How Sports Anthems Are Born

It was May 1977, and Queen had just finished its encore at Bingley Hall in the English town of Stafford when the crowd, rather than dispersing and heading home, began to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Originally featured in the 1945 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel, Gerry & The Pacemakers had popularized the tune with their 1963 version, and shortly after, it became an anthem of the British soccer club Liverpool FC. The spontaneous incident at Bingley Hall would forever change the cultural landscape: It inspired singer Freddie Mercury and guitarist Brian May to write two of Queen’s most iconic songs.

“The story we’ve been told is that Brian and Freddie said, ‘Why don’t we write our own anthems?’ ” says Dominic Griffin, vp of licensing at Disney Music Group, which owns the North American rights to Queen’s music. “So Brian wrote ‘We Will Rock You,’ Freddie wrote ‘We Are the Champions,’ and they started finishing their shows with those. I’m not sure if there was one particular moment, but the band began to realize that there was not much difference between the crowd at a rock show and the crowd at a football game. It was having the same reaction.”

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Whether due to its stomp-clap beat, call-to-action lyrics or simple melody — or more likely a combination of all three — “We Will Rock You” in particular became one of the most widely recognized songs in history, especially at sporting events, where it blares nightly in arenas and stadiums around the world. According to BMI, “We Will Rock You” is the song in the performing rights organization’s 22 million-plus-track repertoire most played at NHL, NFL and MLB games. It accumulated over 9.5 million U.S. radio and TV feature performances from its 1977 release through the third quarter of 2023.

That’s no accident. Since acquiring Queen’s catalog in 1990, both Disney and the band have encouraged radio stations to use “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” in promos, allowed sports stadiums and teams to use them to soundtrack highlights and hype videos (which require additional approval, separate from the blanket public performance license that all venues need to simply play a song in a public space) and licensed them to now-classic sports films like The Mighty Ducks, Any Given Sunday and The Replacements. The label’s research data, including figures from Radio Disney, showed that all generations reacted to the songs.

“I think it was a way for sports teams to play something that appeals to everyone in the venue,” Griffin says. “Those Queen songs tick all the boxes because the lyric is great for sporting events and they’re just natural anthems, and the band went out to write an anthem for an arena that turned into a sports anthem.”

In the decades since, an elite set of songs like these has become a genre unto itself, so known as sports anthems that they’re almost divorced from the original context in which they were released — call it “the Jock Jams effect,” after the compilation albums from the mid-’90s that featured hype-up tracks like House of Pain’s “Jump Around” and Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is).” But more modern songs have also joined the pantheon in recent years, like The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” which are near-omnipresent at current sports games.

“It becomes folk music when things like that happen,” Jack White said of “Seven Nation Army” on the Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast in 2022. “It just becomes ubiquitous. I’m sure many people who are chanting the melody have no idea what the song is or where it came from or why, or whatever — it doesn’t matter anymore, and that’s just amazing.”

“We’ve been fortunate that several of Lil Jon’s songs have become incredible stadium anthems over the years,” says the artist’s manager, Rob Mac. “With ‘Turn Down for What,’ we knew that record felt massive, but the video really helped to boost the song as well. His music has always hyped up fans and crowds — his voice and energy [lend themselves] to that, and people really embrace and connect with it. His music became part of the experience inside a stadium.”

Still, plenty of factors must align — not just the fundamentals of what makes a song appealing to the masses, but also hard work behind the scenes and a little luck — for a song to take off in a sports setting. Labels are constantly pitching not just legacy artists, but new acts and songs to local teams and TV networks hoping for a placement. If a song makes the cut, it can be a massive boost for an artist.

“We spend a lot of time trying to get our new artists played inside sporting arenas because you’re reaching anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 people at a time and you’ve got a captive audience who can’t turn the radio off,” says Griffin, noting the success Disney has had with acts like Demi Lovato, almost monday and Grace Potter, whose “The Lion, the Beast, the Beat” soundtracked multiple promos for the Detroit Lions during this year’s NFL playoffs. “Any time you can get your music in front of that many thousands of people, it certainly helps with recognition.”

Take “Swag Surfin’ ” by Fast Life Yungstaz, for one extreme example: The song has been a staple at the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium for a few years now, played when the defense needs a big stop or the crowd needs an energy boost. In the weeks leading up to the NFL playoffs, the song averaged between 350,000 and 400,000 on-demand streams per week; that number jumped to over 1 million the week the Chiefs beat the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs, when Taylor Swift was seen doing the song’s signature dance alongside Chiefs fans.

“In the arena business, when you’ve got 20,000 or 40,000 people and you’re trying to get them to do something, sometimes it’s the big, dumb gesture that really wins the day. Whether it’s some goofy guy dancing on the scoreboard or something that’s telling you to get up and yell, or a song that’s got a simple melody where everybody can participate, that really seems to be the most effective,” says Ray Castoldi, who has been Madison Square Garden’s music director/organist since 1989; in his role, he also frequently selects the music for New York Knicks and New York Rangers games and occasionally plays the organ for the New York Mets at Citi Field.

Castoldi says he’s constantly looking for new songs to add to his game playlist and that he regularly tests out new material in the Garden — but that the rotation remains pretty steady, with around 300 songs on tap for any given game. “Arena standards are songs that appeal on such a wide basis that you almost can’t help yourself — it’s something in human nature where it motivates a large group of people,” he says. “I always see the equation as: You play the music for this huge assemblage of people and you want to get them all riled up and get their energy going, and then they give that energy to the players.”

And once a song reaches that threshold, it achieves a new, almost mythic status that can long outshine the rest of an artist’s oeuvre. House of Pain racked up 87 million on-demand U.S. streams in 2023, according to Luminate; 75 million of those were for “Jump Around.” Even for an act as beloved and popular as Queen, which tallied 1.3 billion streams in 2023, 8% of its streams were “We Will Rock You.” As Brian May said in 2017 — in an interview after Billboard named that song the No. 1 jock jam of all time — “They’re beyond hits. We don’t have to sell them in any way.”

This story will appear in the Feb. 10, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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