On the road
January 16th, 2014
01:12 PM ET

Postcard from America: Does sport need a soundtrack?

Tickets to the big games aren’t cheap these days, and since the teams you’re paying to see can’t guarantee a winning performance – or even a decent one – they try at least to give you value for money.

In the U.S. they try harder than anywhere, and as such it sometimes feels as though you’re at a pop concert, tapping along with your foot as the buckets drop and the goals fly in. Sport and music are big players in the global entertainment industry, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that they work together.

On our high-definition televisions, sports highlights are often packaged up and edited to the beats of the day, and somehow they seem even better with a soundtrack.

In Europe, Champions League soccer is as recognizable for its signature theme tune as it is for Messi and Ronaldo, and every February there’s almost as much interest in the halftime show as there is in the Super Bowl itself; in case you were wondering, it’s Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing next month.

But in American football’s showpiece event, the music has a clearly defined place: the interval between the first and second half. In other sports, though, it’s harder to tell where one thing ends and the other begins.

British basketball fans will know what I mean when the Atlanta Hawks play the Brooklyn Nets at London's O2 Arena on Thursday.

The NBA claims to be the only major American sport where music can be heard during live play. Every team works from its own playlist, one which it feels is best suited to its own regional market, most of which is played by a DJ at appropriate intervals.

But the Hawks are different, they’re one of only a handful of teams in the league to employ a live organist.

"Sir Foster" provides the soundtrack to all of Atlanta’s home games and – since every match-up is different and unpredictable – no two of his performances are the same. His main job is to enhance the Hawks’ home-court advantage, combining the team’s signature chants like "Go Hawks" or "D-fense" with whatever melodies spring to mind.

“The only way I can really describe it,” he told me before catching his flight to London, “is that I’m scoring a live-action play. You need to understand the ebb and flow of the game because the action on the floor dictates everything.”

One of his first challenges was to learn how to play songs by Rihanna, Jay Z or The White Stripes in 24-second bursts (the time each team has to make a shot), knowing at any moment that he might have to break off for a change in possession.

He estimates he could play as many as 16 different songs per night, but much less if it’s a tight game, when he’ll focus on leading the fans in supportive chants. It’s quite a skill, one that he says requires "a focus of laser-like intensity" as he keeps an ear on the crowd and an eye on both the action and the shot clock.

Foster feels he can make the biggest difference when the away team has the ball. As the 24-second shooting window ticks down, he’ll amp it up, playing louder and faster, trying to unsettle them and rush them into making a shot.

He knows he’s done his job when they miss, usually confirmed by his producer’s voice in his headset: “That one’s on you, Foster!”

If organ music is your thing, then Atlanta is a good place to be a sports fan. Just down the road at the Braves stadium, Matthew Kaminski is the resident organist for the city’s baseball team.

There’s nothing he can do when the ball is in play but at all other times he does everything he can to make the Braves feel at home – and naturally quite the opposite for the visitors.

As the batters walk up to the plate, Kaminski has around 30 seconds to play their individual theme tunes. The home players all get to choose their musical identity – for example, Chipper Jones was identified by Ozzy Osbourne’s "Crazy Train" for years – but the visitors don’t enjoy the same privilege.

In fact, Kaminski is allowed to have a little fun at their expense on his Hammond organ.

If your name happens to be James McDonald, you’ll be walking up to "Old MacDonald Had A Farm." If you’re sporting a beard and bear a passing resemblance to the son of God, don’t be surprised to hear the Doobie Brothers’ "Jesus Is Just Alright With Me."

And if you hail from the Lone Star State, you may be treated to the county hit "All My Exes Live In Texas."

Asked how he’d score me, he started out with a play on my last name – "riddle" – before concluding, “Actually I’d just go with your first name, Don – 'The Godfather!' ”

It’s all good-humored, and Kaminski’s songs have helped to create a long-running in-joke between him and the fans in the ballpark. He has almost 9,000 followers on Twitter and claims to receive between 50 to 100 musical suggestions before every game.

I used to live in Yorkshire – rugby league country – where I covered the creation of the Super League competition and a switch to a summer game in 1996. Musical interludes were introduced by clubs like the Bradford Bulls, and I remember thinking how cheesy it was.

But somehow, when I hear it used in American sports I think it’s charming; it feels nostalgic yet also contemporary.

Not every sports fan approves of so much music on this side of the pond either, but when your team is having a bad night it’s nice to have something to take your mind off the pain and the suffering!

What do you think? Post your comments below or continue the conversation with @donriddellCNN

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Filed under:  U.S. Sport
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Michael Workinger

    Great article and a great subject. I've played music at sporting events for the last 17 years and sweat every time I press the "PLAY" button...sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but after a while, you can tell what the crowd wants. A tip of the hat to anyone who has to do this for a living. Great article!

    April 9, 2014 at 9:57 pm | Reply

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