As multiple major sports leagues are announcing careful plans to return while in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many fans are starting to see the light at the end of tunnel. It’s exciting to think that soon we won’t have to resort to watching athletes playing Madden on YouTube or decades-old reruns of classic games. As we closely await these uncertain, touch-and-go restarts, I’m here to answer the question that nobody is asking: What are the best musical themes that have accompanied our favorite pastimes?
Over the years as television broadcasts of live sporting events have become more sophisticated and production values have increased, we’ve heard a score of great musical compositions designed to evoke the passion and excitement of the sports they represent. While there are far too many great sports themes to discuss them all, here is a list of some of the greatest pieces of sports music that have ever graced the speakers of our TV sets.
8. This Week in Pro Football (1967-1975)
If you’re old enough to remember the heyday of NFL Films, then there’s a good chance you’ll have to adjust your hearing aid to enjoy the fantastic music alongside which they originally aired. For more (ahem…) contemporary readers, This Week in Pro Football was a series of short documentaries in the 60’s and early 70’s that featured the biggest highlights from each week… in pro football. In the days before all-access satellite packages and 24/7 sports news networks, these short films were just about the only way that football fans could see images from around the league. The show’s unique style of dramatic camera work and slick narration quickly became an enduring template for sports documentary filmmaking. One of its greatest legacies however, was its incredible music.
Many football fans will recognize the music of NFL Films, even if they don’t know where it came from. Composed by Sam Spence, the music of NFL Films is fully orchestrated, and spans multiple styles from epic classical overtures to brassy jazz tunes. The brass section is always hearty, evoking the image of linemen clashing helmets. “Classic Battle” is probably the best known of these works. It opens with the song’s main motif played by the bassoon and strings before quickly being swept up by the orchestra which slowly builds intensity until a feverish whirlwind breaks out at the end. Meanwhile, songs like “Ramblin’ man from Gramblin'” and “Forearm Shiver” are swanky jazz pieces that sound like they’re straight out of a 60’s spy film.
P.S. – Some eagle-eared listeners might recognize these tunes from their frequent appearances as production music on Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Squarepants.
7. NBC MLB Game of the Week (1980’s)
Another old-school theme, the NBC game of the week theme is a glimpse into the past of sports broadcasts, when fans diligently tuned in every Saturday afternoon to watch a ballgame. NBC’s disco-era-inspired intro with its slap bass and sweeping strings signaled to fans that it was finally game time. And if the music wasn’t enough to let you know what decade it was, those graphics certainly reminded you. While the best was yet to come in terms of broadcast quality, you can’t help but romanticize the classic sounds of Major League Baseball.
6. YES Rainout Theme
Few sports teams have as much history, as many devoted fans, and as much money as the New York Yankees. That’s pretty much the story of how the Yankee Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network came about in 2002. The network’s music has a little quirk that has become somewhat of an inside joke among fans of the pinstripes. The YES Network has a separate theme song for rain delays, which is a somber, jazzy cover of the network’s main theme music. Apart from sounding a little like the music you come to expect from the weather channel (fitting), Yankees fans have learned to dread the sound of “the sad sax” as its come to be known. The YES rainout theme might not be the most exciting theme on this list, but it’s certainly quirky and uniquely New York.
5. Formula 1 Theme
Formula 1 racing is truly a spectacle to behold. 20 of the world’s greatest drivers risk their lives to go 200 miles-an-hour in meticulously-engineered machines around circuits that pepper 5 continents while 10 elite teams spend hundreds of millions of dollars in pursuit of an elusive world championship title. An event of such scope and intensity deserves a truly epic soundtrack, and Brian Tyler’s theme is just that. The F1 theme is action-movie-levels of dramatic and intense which sets up an afternoon of epic wheel-to-wheel battles, but it has streaks of majesty and gravitas that call back to sport’s great history and the allure of a world championship title. Every Formula 1 race starts with a dramatic edit of all 20 drivers set to this remarkable theme. Then as the casters introduce the grand prix, elaborating on the exotic location of the race and the championship standings, the music pulls back into a quietly intense secondary theme that evokes a massive sense of scale that only F1’s globetrotting schedule can deliver. The music of F1 really creates a cinematic race day experience, making the listener feel like something legendary is gonna happen every race.
4. NBA Playoffs on ABC Theme
The NBA playoffs are the most exciting time of the year for basketball fans. The intensity is cranked up to an 11 and the atmosphere around each game is electrifying. The fans are all color coordinated and the basketball is extremely high energy. That’s a big reason why simply hearing the Playoffs theme on ABC triggers such huge hit of dopamine in the brains of basketball fans. It’s also a pretty stirring piece of music with its mix of traditional orchestral elements and rock instrumentation. The hard driving bass line and drums keep the intensity up while the melody brings out the magic of postseason play. You can’t help but get excited when you hear it, and that’s what puts this theme on our list.
3. UEFA Champions League Anthem
The UEFA Champions League is European soccer’s greatest stage, where the top few teams from each nation’s premier league compete side by side to be crowned champion of Europe. Tony Britten, the man tasked with creating an anthem to capture the gravitas of UEFA’s competition said “I think the music resonates because it represent[s] a sense of occasion.” The anthem he came up with was heavily based on Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” which was originally written for the coronation of King George II in the 16th century, and its lyrics are in German, French, and English, the three official languages of UEFA. The song adapts the original melody with an arrangement for orchestra, choir, and synth. Hearing the anthem play over all the pageantry of a championship match is magical, earning it a high spot on this list.
2. Olympic Fanfare
John Williams is one of the 20th century’s most influential composers. For those who don’t recognize the name, he was the man behind the iconic Hollywood soundtracks of Jaws, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter, E.T., and perhaps most famously, Star Wars. When Los Angeles wanted to commission a new piece of music for their 1984 summer games, they turned to its most famous composer of instrumental themes. The result was a piece of music that to this day gives goosebumps to anyone with ears and a pulse. It captures all the majesty of the world’s greatest sporting contest. As the piece marches to its conclusion the orchestra swells into a final triumphant fanfare, evoking the sense of glory that comes with olympic victory. It’s a truly fitting theme for the momentous occasion that are the Olympic Games.
1. Monday Night Football
The undisputed king of sports themes has to be the iconic theme from ESPN’s Monday Night Football. There have been multiple songs written for MNF, including one by country legend Hank Williams Jr., but the classic orchestral theme is one of the sporting world’s most recognizable tunes. The MNF theme, actually called “Heavy Action”, was originally composed in 1970. However, it wasn’t until 1989 that the song became the theme to the biggest weekday spectacle in football. It certainly takes inspiration from the classic music of NFL Films, recapturing the timeless combination of football and orchestra. “Heavy Action” accomplishes more with its first four notes than most themes do through their entire runtime. It’s the undeniable anthem of an entire weekday, and for that it tops our list of the best sports themes.
That’s our list of the best themes from around the world of sports. Let us know in the comments if you would’ve done it differently. One things for sure though: all our favorite sports themes will sound a whole lot sweeter when pro sports finally return to our TV’s.