"Our music in the early '80s, it might have been ecstatic, but it wasn't really sexy, was it? Now we're sexy and ecstatic."
-- Bono, 2001
U2 Is Giving a Voice to ESPN's Coverage
New York Times,
June 07, 2006
For its extensive coverage of the World Cup, which begins tomorrow, ESPN felt it needed more than its announcers and more than its game coverage to convey the enormousness of the event to casual fans.
From now until its conclusion on July 9, Jeff Z. Klein, Robert Mackey and other staff members of The Times and International Herald Tribune will track the world's most popular sporting event.
It needed a voice. It wanted U2.
"Our biggest fear," said Seth Ader, senior director of ESPN Marketing, "was we would create this beautiful campaign on paper, and they'd say: 'We don't do this kind of thing. We don't need it. We don't need the money.' "
The idea was to license U2 songs and concert footage for highlights and promotional ads (which the band members would narrate), as a merger of the astonishingly popular World Cup and the enduringly popular rockers.
"If it was just a music deal, it would have been like any other campaign to pay for their music," Ader said, describing the role of the band in providing the voice-overs of the ads as crucial. "We wanted them to be a part of it."
U2 had never done precisely what ESPN envisioned, but the band has not been shy about exploiting its music. It has licensed its songs to films and the English Premier League, has performed at halftime of the Super Bowl and has gone into business with Apple to create the iPod U2 Special Edition.
But the band was smitten with ESPN's plans, in part because all four of its members are soccer fans from Ireland, and the global scope of the World Cup appeals to their well-known charitable endeavors, especially in Africa.
"There's something wonderfully democratic about soccer," Paul McGuinness, U2's manager, said yesterday from his home in London. "It's the cheapest game in the world. All you need is a ball, and boys and girls can play it. Not that we're zealots, but we feel that soccer is a good thing, so our association with it is a good one."
During a flight last February from Los Angeles to a concert in Mexico, Bono grabbed the scripts for the five promotional spots, written by ESPN's ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, out of McGuinness's hands and acted out each one for his bandmates, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.
"That's when we knew this was a big deal to them," Ader said, recalling his reaction when McGuinness related the story.
Viewers have seen the five spots, which depict various tableaux set to U2 songs. A montage of children playing soccer around the world is set to "City of Blinding Lights." A second, about rampant yet widely sanctioned absenteeism during World Cup games, is punctuated by "Beautiful Day."
A gleeful one showing the Tartan Army of fans of Scotland (whose team did not qualify for the World Cup) dancing in Edinburgh's streets, is backed by "I Will Follow." And one about the Ivory Coast's qualifying for the first time is supported by "Where the Streets Have No Name."
McGuinness said the Ivory Coast ad "hit the nail on the head" for the band, "and resonated immediately." In it, visions of feuding factions in the country's war give way to a crowd of well-wishers cheering for their team as it prepared to board the flight to Germany for the World Cup.
"After three years of civil war, feuding factions talked for the first time in years," Bono said in his voice-over, "and the president called a truce because the Ivory Coast qualified for its first-ever World Cup."
But the peace is tenuous; Human Rights Watch has reported that government forces, militia groups and rebels committed human-rights abuses "with impunity" against citizens from last November through March. More than 7,000 United Nations peacekeepers are trying to help reunite the Ivory Coast.
The Web site deadspin.com suggested that Bono might be rooting for the Ivory Coast for reasons beyond his humanitarian work in Africa; its flag is a mirror image of Ireland's. (Ireland did not qualify for the World Cup.)
During the World Cup, viewers of games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will see most packages of highlights accompanied by U2 music, whether recorded in a studio or on a concert stage. As part of its deal with the band, ESPN has the rights to 11 songs.
"We have confidence in the creative people running this campaign," McGuinness said. "It's great to feel comfortable with the people essentially chopping up our songs and putting them to other uses."
Being the musical centerpiece of ESPN's World Cup coverage is the type of exposure that U2 craves.
"With record companies decreasingly able to spend money on paid advertising, these kinds of hookups are more attractive," McGuinness said. He said the band's compensation from ESPN was "nothing extraordinary, but we did get paid."
(c) New York Times, 2006.