Brand Strategy

Sports franchises are turning to sonic branding to make their mark

Agencies like MassiveMusic and Audiobrain say requests are heating up.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

The roar of fans filling a stadium. A ball bouncing on a court, hitting a mitt, or whooshing into a net. Team anthems blasting from speakers.

The sounds accompanying sports are well-known around the world. Now, more and more teams and leagues are adding another to the mix: their very own custom themes.

“You’re going to see a real proliferation of sports teams start developing their own sonic identities, because they know how important branding is,” said Joe Belliotti, CEO of MassiveMusic North America, a global creative music agency that’s worked with FIFA publisher EA Sports and the Premier League. Recently, it created a new anthem for the Union of European Football Associations Women’s Champions League. “It’s as important as the visual asset, or the logo, or the font type.”

Athletic earworms

Sports teams and leagues are fighting more than ever to capture attention across platforms, especially as streaming services continue growing.

The live-sports streaming market, valued at $18.1 billion in 2020, is expected to reach $87.3 billion by 2028, according to a report from Verified Market Research. And with leagues such as the Premier Hockey Federation signing deals with streaming services like ESPN+, they don’t want to get drowned out in the crowded market.

When the PHF rebranded from the National Women’s Hockey League last year, commissioner Tyler Tumminia tasked Michael Cohen, president and executive producer of media consultancy Bizzy Signals Entertainment, with developing “what women’s hockey would look like on television,” Cohen told Marketing Brew.

Cohen tapped Audrey Arbeeny, founder and CEO of sonic branding firm Audiobrain, which has worked with Major League Soccer and the New York Giants, to come up with a signature sound for the league.

The PHF uses the resulting brand theme during live events, broadcasts, and streamed games to differentiate itself. That’s especially important for “sports that are just breaking out,” Cohen said.

Without a custom sound, streaming services and broadcast networks are left to their own devices to add music to games, Cohen said. He didn’t want that to be the case for the PHF as it works to grow its fanbase.

“This is our sound,” he said. “You’re not going to hear this on beach volleyball next week.”

The PHF isn’t the only league trying to make its mark this way. “Everyone’s in competition for attention,” Belliotti explained. “Everyone’s trying to grow their brands and attract new audiences, and they see sound as a way to do it. Once one or two start to really utilize it and see the benefit from it, it’s just going to open the floodgates because it’ll be a competition for the ears.”

According to Belliotti, MassiveMusic started noticing sports orgs becoming more interested in using sound as a branding tool around 2016, when it kicked off its first sonic-identity project for the Premier League. But he said the trend has picked up more significantly in the past year.

Building the sound of a sport

Crafting a sonic identity often involves several elements, like writing lyrics and scores. MassiveMusic has a network of more than 250 composers it can tap into, Belliotti said, but it also partners with creative agencies to make sure a client’s sonic branding matches its visual branding.

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In-depth research is also important to the process. Sonic branding agencies conduct research around consumer perceptions of different sounds, for instance, to help with planning and strategy. Take the key of D major: While conducting research for a sonic-identity project for Colgate, MassiveMusic found that most people interpret it as an optimistic sound.

They also do deep-dives into the team or league itself, Arbeeny told Marketing Brew. When developing the brand theme for the PHF, Arbeeny said she and her team were diligent in working to understand the values of the league before settling on any sounds.

Among the words she used to describe the PHF and its new sound: “aggressive,” “tight,” and “action-packed.”

Those are attributes that could describe any number of teams, though. Twenty years back, marketers and content creators had access to a much more limited online database of music, and “everyone pulled from the same sports playlist,” Belliotti said. Nowadays, they have more options to choose from, so teams can sound more unique.

Another important attribute of the PHF’s sound, according to Arbeeny, is being gender-neutral. She said oftentimes, women’s sports will be written or branded as “lighter” than men’s sports. But the PHF’s theme is “very, very neutral,” combining the musical sounds of high strings and low bass, as well as sound effects like skates on ice.

“This, by no way, is lighter,” Arbeeny said of the sonic theme, which debuted November 6 at the top of its 2021–22 season. “This is hockey. It’s not male, it’s not female.”

The applications of sonic branding for teams and leagues could stretch even further in the future: Both Arbeeny and Belliotti mentioned gaming and esports as an opportunity for branded sound down the line.

“You’re seeing a lot of esports teams starting to really hone in on their sonic identity,” Belliotti said. “You’re also seeing the huge importance of music as part of the gaming experience. When you’re watching these streams, you’re watching these gamers, or you’re playing games, there’s always music on. It’s just part of that environment.”

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