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How FOX Sports’ Resident Deadheads Brought Jam Bands To Big Games

Mr. Nimbus | 02/09/2024

For Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles fans — and any football lover, really — last year’s Super Bowl LVII was a thrilling, down-to-the-wire classic. But as the game, airing on FOX Sports and tied at 35, cut to commercial break at the two-minute warning, tense viewers might’ve felt an unexpected wave of calm. The buttery-smooth lick from “Hungersite,” one of the most popular tracks by the exploding jam band Goose, played as the stressed visages of head coaches Andy Reid and Nick Sirianni gave way to ads.

“It was so surreal to hear our song during the Super Bowl,” Goose singer-guitarist Rick Mitarotonda tells Billboard. “We are very thankful to FOX Sports for supporting what we do and exposing so many bands in the genre to the masses.”

Goose posted the snippet to Instagram and reached out to FOX Sports to express its gratitude — all in a day’s work for Jacob Ullman, FOX Sports senior vp of production and talent development, and Jake Jolivette, a producer at the network. Through their production roles on NFL games, Ullman and Jolivette have caught the attention of astute listeners with secondslong jam band synchs — from titans like the Grateful Dead and Phish to cultier acts like Umphrey’s McGee and moe. — for the past several years.

Ullman, 50, saw his first Dead show at age 12 when his father took him to see the band at Southern California’s Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in 1985. Jolivette, 49, got into the band as a Midwestern college student, attending his first show in 1992 (three years before Jerry Garcia died); his college years also coincided with Phish’s rise, and the Vermont band’s “communal” shows hooked him. “It’s almost like going to a live sporting event,” he observes.

Ullman began working at FOX Sports when the network launched in 1994, and Jolivette landed there a decade later. The former recalls the thrill of synching a jam-adjacent artist early on: When he integrated Dave Matthews Band’s “Tripping Billies” into a hockey broadcast in 1996, he was amazed “that you can collide your work life, your passion for sports and your passion for music in one place.” But FOX Sports wouldn’t become known for its sly jam band integrations until years later, after Ullman and Jolivette had both risen through the ranks and found themselves working together on NFL and NASCAR broadcasts.

For many viewers, the first clue that the FOX Sports edit bay might be tie-dye-friendly came during 2017’s Super Bowl LI, in a produced pregame video narrated by actor Ving Rhames introducing the competing New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. Jolivette used Audioslave’s “Cochise” for the Patriots — and Phish’s exuberant “Tweezer Reprise” for the Falcons. Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and the band’s former longtime road manager, Brad Sands, watched the show, and a screenshotted text thread between them circulated on jam-loving corners of the internet. (Sands said, “Falcons have to win now right?” and Anastasio agreed.) “I love ‘Tweezer.’ I love how it builds,” says Jolivette before adding with a chuckle, “Mind you, my editor hated the song — but I still got it in.”

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In 2018, FOX Sports inked a five-year deal with the NFL to air Thursday Night Football, and Ullman and Jolivette became heavily involved in the broadcasts. That’s when their jam band synchs really took off. “We’d sneak a couple of [songs] in there — all of a sudden, you’re getting texts,” says Jolivette with still-palpable amazement. “That’s when I figured out that this was something that was brewing that people could hear.”

When the pandemic hit, Ullman, who had hung out with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir at NASCAR events over the years, convinced the musician through his manager to record a solo performance of the national anthem for the late-March 2020 broadcast of an iRacing Pro Invitational simulated race. Later that year, Ullman and Jolivette’s colleagues Joe Carpenter (senior audio engineer) and Bryan Biederman (director) — fellow FOX Sports Deadheads who work on the network’s MLB broadcasts — integrated a slew of Dead songs into the 2020 World Series. Sensing the public’s interest, FOX uploaded a supercut of the synchs — among them “Shakedown Street,” “Sugar Magnolia” and “Althea” — to its social media, with corresponding game footage nested within the band’s iconic “Steal Your Face” logo.

“Between that and what we were doing on Thursday Night Football, that year was probably where a lot of this exploded,” Ullman says. It was a feedback loop of sorts: The more FOX Sports integrated jam bands, the more positive reinforcement it received.

Still, in the tricky world of TV licensing, the network’s ’heads need supportive — or at least tolerant — colleagues to facilitate clearances. For that, they work with a team that includes vp of music Nicole de la Torriente-Nelson, who leads negotiations with publishers and labels, and associate director Yvonne Wagoner, who prepares approved playlists for broadcast teams. Wagoner collaborates with crews to construct eclectic playlists — an amalgam of current hits, old classics, songs for specific situations like scoring and situational matches for game location and weather — and solicits requests. While some core songs remain throughout a season, there’s also turnover, and Wagoner refers potential new songs to de la Torriente-Nelson and her colleagues, who secure the applicable rights. Licensing terms vary, but songs are often cleared for a season’s entirety, with fees paid out on a per-use basis (the higher-profile the game, the higher the synch rate).

Take FOX Sports’ week 15 Buffalo Bills-Dallas Cowboys broadcast. Jolivette wanted to use a song by Buffalo jam band moe. for the Bills home game, so he asked Wagoner to clear the group’s “Happy Hour Hero.” She passed along the request to de la Torriente-Nelson, whose team secured the rights, and Jolivette and senior audio mixer Jamie McCombs — not a jam fan per se, though he admits Jolivette has “turned me on to some really good stuff” — prepped the few seconds that would ultimately air. Late in the first quarter of the Dec. 17 game, with the Bills up 7-0, “Hero” led into a commercial break. Watching was moe. guitarist Al Schnier, who posted a video of his TV screen to Instagram with the caption “Bills + moe. + winning = Happy Hour Hero.”

Integrations like that really are by jam band fans, for jam band fans. Ullman’s team doesn’t feel bound to the Dead or Phish, or even to the most popular tracks in their respective discographies; in the Jan. 14 Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers playoff game, FOX Sports used the Dead’s “Saint of Circumstance” and Phish’s “Axilla,” hardly the best-known songs by either group. Jolivette and his colleagues seek out the best secondslong snippets, wherever they may come from. As he explains of “Saint of Circumstance,” “The part we use, it hits. If you’ve seen that in concert, you know that’s one of the great transitions. That, to me, is what makes that a great song to use.”

And in the ultimate validation of their work, one of their heroes is returning the fandom. “When you think about it, the music we make isn’t unlike a sporting event,” Weir, who was spotted with the FOX Sports team on the sideline at January’s NFC Championship game, tells Billboard. “On a good night, you don’t really know where it’s going to go — and getting wherever it’s going is going to be different every time to boot.”

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

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus

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