Illustration by Alycea Tinoyan; Naomi Baker/Getty Images; Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images; Armando Gallo/Getty Images
It was May 1977 and Queen had just finished performing at Bingley Hall in the English town of Stafford when the crowd, instead of dispersing and going home, started singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. It first appeared 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 British football club Liverpool FC. The spontaneous incident at Bingley Hall would change the cultural landscape forever: 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 hymns?’ ” says Dominic Griffin, head 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 to end their shows with them. I’m not sure if there was a particular moment, but the band started to realize that there wasn’t much difference between a crowd at a rock show and a crowd at a football game. It had the same reaction.”
Whether it was because of its clapping 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 popular songs in history, especially in sports. events, where it explodes every night in arenas and stadiums around the world. According to BMI, “We Will Rock You” is the song in the performing rights organization’s repertoire of 22 million songs, the most played at NHL, NFL and MLB games. It amassed over 9.5 million US radio and television performances from its release in 1977 through the third quarter of 2023.
It’s not a coincidence. Since buying 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 promotions, allowing stadiums and sports teams to use them to followed by sound and video commercials (which require additional approval, separate from the general public performance license that all venues need to play a song in a public space) and licensed for already classic sports films such as EG The Mighty Ducks, Every Sunday AND REPLACEMENT. The label’s research data, including figures from Radio Disney, showed that all generations responded to the songs.
“I think it was a way for sports teams to play something that everybody in the country likes,” Griffin says. “These Queen songs tick all the boxes because the lyrics are great for sporting events and they’re just natural anthems, and the band set out to write an arena anthem that turned into a sports anthem.”
In the decades since, an elite group of songs like these have become a genre unto themselves, so popular as sports anthems that they’re almost divorced from the original context in which they were released—call it ” Jock Jams effect,” following compilation albums from the mid-’90s that featured boisterous hits like House of Pain’s “Jump Around” and “Whoomp! (There She Is).” But even more modern songs have 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 nearly ubiquitous in current sports games.
“It becomes folk music when things like that happen,” Jack White said of Seven Nation Army on Conan O’Brien needs a friend podcast in 2022. “It just becomes ubiquitous. I’m sure a lot of people who are singing the tune have no idea what the song is, where it came from, why, or whatever – it doesn’t matter anymore, and that’s just amazing.”
“We’ve been fortunate that some 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 drive the song as well. His music has always driven fans and crowds—his voice and energy [lend themselves] for that, and people really embrace it and relate to it. His music became part of the experience inside a stadium.”
However, many factors must align – not just the basics of what makes a song appeal to the masses, but also hard work behind the scenes and a bit of luck – for a song to take off in a sports setting. Labels are constantly pitching not only legacy artists, but new acts and songs to local teams and TV networks hoping for 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 to play inside sports arenas because you’re reaching anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 people at a time and you have a captive audience that can’t turn off the radio, ” say. Griffin, noting the success Disney has had with acts like Demi Lovato, Almost Monday and Grace Potter, whose “Lion, Beast, Beating” rang out in numerous promos for the Detroit Lions during this year’s NFL playoffs. “Anytime you can get your music in front of thousands of people, it certainly helps with recognition.”
Take “Swag Surfin'” by Fast Life Yungstaz, for an extreme example: The song has been a staple at the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium for several years now, played when the defense needs a big stop or the crowd needs energy. incentive. 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 dancing to the song along with 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 a silly guy dancing on the scoreboard or something that tells you to stand up and scream, or a song that has a simple melody that everyone can join in on, this really seems to be the most effective. ,” says Ray Castoldi, who has been Director/Organist of Madison Square Garden 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 playlist, and that he regularly tests out new material at the Garden — but that the rotation remains fairly steady, with about 300 songs on tap for any given game. . “Arena standards are songs that appeal to such a broad base that you almost can’t help yourself – it’s something in human nature where you motivate a large group of people,” he says. “I always see the equation as: you play the music for this big group of people and you want to get everybody fired up and energized, and then they feed that energy to the players.”
And once a song reaches that threshold, it achieves a new, almost mythic status that can shine through the rest of an artist’s work. House of Pain racked up 87 million US on-demand streams in 2023, according to Luminate; 75 million of those were for Jump Around. Even for an act as beloved and popular as Queen, who counted 1.3 billion streams in 2023, 8% of their streams were “We Will Rock You.” As Brian May said in 2017 – in an interview afterwards Billboard called that song as jock jam no. 1 of all time – “They’re beyond hits. We don’t have to sell them in any way.”
This story will appear in the February 10, 2024, issue of Billboard.