It all started in 2021 as ESPN signed a new 10-year deal with the NFL worth $2.7 billion per season. The Disney-owned station then invested in new talent, and in fall 2022 legendary hosts Joe Buck and Troy Aikman joined the MNF team, while Peyton and Eli Manning, two of the most popular quarterbacks in the NFL’s recent history, had started an alternate presentation the season prior, airing on ESPN2 for 10 games each season.
At the same time, the management of the sports network started planning a major rebrand ahead of the 2023 season – the first season all the benefits of the new rights deal began.
The new and improved offer on ESPN would also include new looks for all football shows, and a new anthem for the trademark brand Monday Night Football.
In the 1990s and into the 2000s, Monday Night Football was famous for its’ Hank Williams rock-country tune All My Rowdy Friends (Are You Ready for Some Football?), remaining as the anthem until 2011. ESPN then decided to go in a different direction, mainly due to controversial political statements by the singer. Despite this bitter end, Hank Williams still remained a major factor and one of the toughest tasks of the creative teams would be to find a worthy replacement for the iconic tune.
Emerging from the focus groups conducted by ESPN about what viewers expected from MNF‘s brand included nostalgia associated with the Monday night game.
Over the course of the following year, within ESPN’s headquarters, multiple brainstorm sessions were held which focused on potential songs for the next sustainable anthem and, just as important, the artists who could become the faces of the anthem.
It was only in spring 2023, a mere months before it would eventually debut, that a more concrete idea for the new anthem was put on the table by Steve Ackels, ESPN Vice President and Monday Night Football producer – In the Air Tonight covered by country megastar Chris Stapleton.
He jokingly said, “When I put In the Air Tonight out there to my colleagues, I knew I was going to get some eyerolls like “This song again!”,
“This song is from the 80s!”, but the overall reaction was very positive.”
Julie McGlone, ESPN Vice President, Creative Content Unit co-signed on the idea as the research showed that the song fully resonated with the fans and the players, and it felt like “a natural fit.”
As far as Stapleton, Ackels recalls the moment he knew Stapleton was the best choice: “When Chris sang at the Super Bowl (in February 2023) ….it was one of the most remarkable national anthems I’ve heard.”
McGlone adds: “You listen to his music, and it just catches you. It’s a real tone of strength, excitement, and there is some emotion in the way that he writes his songs. You really feel like you are getting to know him, and anyone who has heard his music is wondering where those lyrics came from. He has got a real soul to him, and he is a badass.”
Claude Mitchell, ESPN Coordinating Director, Music, whose team would ultimately oversee the musical recording of the anthem, sums up: “(When we were ready to move forward), Chris Stapleton was at the top of our list, and it doesn’t happen very often that the 1 pick can actually work out.”
It is one thing to have an idea and another to make it happen, especially when the production involves various large teams and factors like rights, talent availability, creative coordination, approvals, time management, and more.
As Mitchell notes, they were lucky to secure their first pick, Chris Stapleton pretty quickly after the rights to In the Air Tonight were cleared by Phil Collins’ label for the cover.
ESPN’s creative group also mentions it was also Stapleton’s idea to do a collaboration with Snoop Dogg, who is also a big football fan and popular around the NFL, and collectively it was decided to have Cindy Blackman-Santana, one of the most accomplished drummers in the World, led the song’s iconic drum solo.
Work on the recording of the track and the shooting of the video clip started in parallel, and in a lot of ways are two different projects combined into one.
ESPN’s music team put together a brief for Stapleton’s team who enlisted Dave Cobb as music producer. At the same time, ESPN’s creative content team gathered in New York to draw up the whiteboard for the 90-second video – a process that took around nine hours. ESPN’s Rico Labbe, Co-Director, put his creative vision into it and Amanda Paschal, ESPN Producer, managed the production.
Stapleton’s first impression on ESPN’s creative team was very strong: “On our first Zoom call with him he was super down-to-earth and focused on a real collaborative discussion,” says McGlone. “He wanted to be involved from the very start, and he was very reverent of Phil Collins and he was very clear that he wanted to pay homage to Phil. It was his idea to take the No Jacket Required album cover and represent that in the piece. You see that moment when he is in the tunnel [and also on the magazine’s cover – Ed].”
“Chris had some specific ideas on how his story would progress. We had drawn him in the hat that he has everywhere he goes, and we had him in this long duster and at first his management were not sure about it, but in the end, he actually had a custom-made duster by his tailor, and he loved it. We thought that was a real win because we thought that elevated him in a different way than what we are used to seeing him on stage,” McGlone recalls.
The first audio recording session was completed in May and Stapleton and his producer did their second taping session in July. In between, Cindy recorded the drums section.
Due to the artists’ busy schedule the video shoot was extended through the whole summer with two sessions in July dedicated to Stapleton’s part – one in Charleston where he had a concert, and the other in his hometown Nashville. The Nashville shoot took around 8 hours “which is basically unheard of for talent,” McGlone praises Stapleton’s input: “His team was also watching every frame, so it felt like they were coming together with us and producing it with us which was fantastic.”
Cindy’s part was shot in warehouse in L.A. on August 24. “Cindy’s signature is when she wears her hair blown out from her Lenny Kravitz days and Santana and she loved to do that again and looked fantastic and she comes across as a real badass on that drum change,” McGlone notes. She would also helped the team with the lighting and its synchronization with her drum hitting.
Snoop Dogg was the last one to shoot his scenes, and also recorded his vocal part during the same session for which ESPN brought a mobile recording studio on location. That happened on August 28.
“Snoop was very specific, down to the color of the cars, the type of classic cars, his wardrobe which was all custom made. He was also extremely involved in the lyrics. He had seven different verses and we had one of our writers MK Asante work with him to help craft the football language into the rhymes. He recorded those right before he went on to shoot the music videos which was one of the quickest times we have done just about anything,” McGlone notes.
Besides MK Asante, Figure and Groove also contributed to the music production.
“The whole track was done, done, done! pretty much within a week before the start of the season. Our first game was September 11, so we had a couple of weeks after Snoop’s session to mix the track,” Mitchell notes.
Work on the video was completed literally hours before it first went on air.
On the morning of Monday, Sept. 18, ESPN published a 30-second teaser video of the anthem on the social media accounts @ESPN and @AdamSchefter which generated over 9 million views. Following the premiere on the Monday Night Football doubleheader, the new anthem got a wide media coverage, mainly on print and online, with 12.4 million estimated views on social and a total potential audience reach of the media that wrote about the launch estimated at 2.5 billion.
That night Sports Illustrated wrote that fans loved the new song and quoted posts from social media calling it “grand slam. 10/10”, “ubelievable”, “awesome”, “badass”, “amazing”.
Ackels, who manages a staff of nearly 120 people on site every Monday night, notes that the whole team was revitalized when they first saw the new anthem on television at the start of the season.
Monday Night Football play-by-play voice Joe Buck adds: “I’m of the right age to have the original song in my wheelhouse but hearing Stapleton’s version (earlier this summer) instantly gave me chills. It’s the perfect way for us to begin our telecast, as it portrays a sense and feeling to viewers that something special is about to happen, that this is a game they need to watch. For me to put my voice after the anthem airs, at the top of our broadcast, is an honor. The song crosses many demographics and the drum fill is iconic. It’s easily the coolest lead-in music in major sports television in my opinion.”
The League apparently also loves it, as Steve Ackels shares: “I got a call, it’s probably the biggest game we have this weekend with the Ravens and 49ers [played on December 26 – Ed.], and the Ravens coach John Harbaugh asked for an MP3 of it, as they want to play all during the practice this week. A few minutes later, during that interview, he got a similar message from the 49ers.
McGlone experienced the whole excitement in one of the stadiums this season: “Our version of the song does play in most of the stadiums every week and it’s something to see. It is one thing to watch it every Monday in my living room, but it is another thing to watch in the stadiums with the whole place going crazy. I was in Detroit with 60.000 people singing along! And I’m like “This is awesome!”
Julie McGlone also shares her interpretation of the video: “I really like the idea that Snoop was able to deliver the storyline in a creative way each week. […] I feel like Chris is the foundation with his vocals… it’s a comfortable place you see him at the very beginning, and you know that he is going to take you thru. The guitar solo is just so fantastic. He is an incredible guitar player and I really like that section with him and then Cindy just keeps it moving. She is the one who drives the pace, and she really emphasizes some of the real hard hits of football and for us that creates urgency and anticipation.”
Mitchell adds: “This whole project has been something that is a little outside of his [Chris’] normal comfort zone and I think that they really were excited as much about the music and also as an opportunity to bring Chris into a new place, and part of why our 1 pick came in was that this created a new great opportunity for us to launch a new Anthem, but also give Chris a really positive, marquee moment at the time of the release of his new album.”
He also makes the point that: “Part of what we do as music team is to find opportunities where we not only want artists to help boost our product, but we also want, as a good partner, to boost the artist and make sure that they see a positive benefit.”
“The feedback internally was tremendously positive. We’ve worked on a lot of projects, and I can say that there has been very few things that have been as well received,” Claude Mitchell adds.
I ask Steve Ackels whether it was the initial idea to have such strong diversity in the production and he explains: “With anything we do, we try to have an open mind because we know our audience is diverse. It wasn’t like ‘we have to do this, this and this,’ but we do like the aspect that it has a diverse representation and that really relates to our audience.”
The ratings have been amazing as well: “The 2023 Monday Night Football season (20 games) is the most-watched MNF season of the ESPN era (2006 – present), averaging 17.1 million viewers. The television franchise is up 33% year-over-year,” Derek Volner, Director, ESPN Communications – Monday Night Football and NFL Portfolio (who also made this story possible), underlines.
The only thing that is really missing in this chain of success is a chance for the song to leave its mark in the music charts, to which Mitchell replies: “At this point, we would love to see it out in the market, but that’s totally up to Chris and his label.”
Once again, being a former radio guy, I have no doubt that a single release would get heavy rotation and have a major impact internationally as well, bringing in new fans of football, Chris Stapleton, Phil Collins, Snoop Dogg, Cindy, ESPN and the NFL.
Besides the track and the accompanying video to the anthem, ESPN also fully changed its on-air looks for the start of the new football season. Lucas Nickerson, ESPN Creative Director, Creative Services, shares that it all started from the MNF shield: “We have probably done every version of a shape of shield known to man, so I think where we landed was a refinement of what we did last time but infused enough energy into it and motion that it was an upgrade from the last version.”
The main task was to challenge the designers to show thru their visuals what primetime means to them. In two weeks, the ideas were collected and then slimmed down with six main designers working on the new image and new “Primetime typeface” whose creation started from the MNF brand and then extended to Monday Night Football and further. “We had a lot of different curves within the typeface and finally landed on something that felt right – it needed to feel athletic enough, but also unique enough. We did base it a little bit on the width and stature of the typefaces we used in the last rebrand. We knew that that weight really felt well when you read information and titles,” Nickerson notes.
Studio Elastic cooperated on the project proving video effects. In his words, the idea was to pay homage to the history of Monday Night Football: “We wanted to make sure it wasn’t too futuristic with almost like a nod to the past without being historical.” He also notes that the whole process took about six months which is relatively short for such type of projects, thus later in the season they started introducing some new visuals which were created just three-four months ago.
“The collaboration across the ESPN Creative Studio is why we’re able to generate industry-influencing creative. We’ve developed a wide range of skillsets to achieve the creative that we conceptualize. The influence of this editorially-paced animation look, paired with a high-end information design system allows for the brand to permeate across the company on all platforms. None of this is possible without strong collaboration led by Art Director Brian Girardin’s tremendous attention to detail,” Nickerson sums up.
- Craig Lazarus - Vice President / Executive Producer Original Content - ESPN
- Julie McGlone - Vice President - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Steve Ackels - Vice President - Monday Night Football, ESPN
- Amanda Paschal - Managing Producer - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Rico Labbe - Co-Director - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Mike Sciallis - Co-Director/Editor, Victory Pictures
- Michelle Walton - Production Coordinator - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Claude Mitchell - Coordinating Music Director - ESPN
- Kevin Wilson - Creative Director, Music - ESPN
- Joanne Strange - Music Supervisor - ESPN
- Dave Cobb - Music Producer
- Chris Stapleton - Vocalist, Guitarist
- Snoop Dogg - Rapper
- Cindy Blackman Santana - Drummer
- MK Asante - Writer
- META Productions / John Cameron - VFX Supervisor
- Sherwood Productions / Dave Sorafine - Director of Photography
- Figure & Groove - Music Composition
- Six Degrees / John Iaquinta - Post Production Sound Supervisor
- John Belcher - Supervising Post Editor, ESPN
- Bryan Rourke - Sr Associate Producer - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Brian Arnold - Sr Associate Producer - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Jake Roen - Associate Producer - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Olivia Powers - Associate Producer - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Alex Gabriele - Associate Producer - Creative Content Unit, ESPN
- Audra Leimberg - Sr Associate Producer - Monday Night Football, ESPN
- Thomas Beers - VFX Supervisor, ESPN
- Rhapsody James - Choreographer
- David Jaunai - Sr Sound Designer, ESPN
- Ray Palagy - Supervising Sound Designer, ESPN
- Zach Peters - Red Light Management
- Clay Hunt - Red Light Management
- Kevin Barkey - Doggy Style Records
- Jasmin Ratansi - Doggy Style Records
- Adam Fells - Universal Tone Management/Santana
- Nick Ralbovsky - Art Director
- Ashley Amezcua - Art Director