Laura Slattery: Never mind the politics, it’s sport and music that should not mix

Super Bowl’s half-time show becomes thin end of the wedge as events conspire to make two worlds intertwine

Some people argue that sport and politics shouldn’t mix, forgetting about the real curse of our times: clunky and increasingly frequent attempts to unite sport and music.

Pretending sport can be apolitical seems a misguided instinct to me, but if someone wants to start a petition to keep a giant crowbar between the worlds of sport and music, I’ll sign.

Granted this is a subject that no less powerful a cultural force than Apple feels differently about, with Apple Music just unveiled as the new sponsor of the extravaganza that is the Super Bowl half-time show, replacing Pepsi. But then the Super Bowl might be the exception that proves the rule: sport and music shouldn’t be allowed to mix. And yet, they do.

Late on Friday night, Roger Federer’s swansong at the Laver Cup, held at London’s O2 arena, exemplified the awkwardness of it all.


Goulding was the sort of booking who could deliver a dash of available glamour while sealing the sense of occasion for a full crowd that had paid big money to be there

You could see what organisers of the not especially serious men’s tennis competition — which include Federer’s own “sports and entertainment” agency Team8 — must have been thinking when they hired Ellie Goulding for some post-match warbling.

What if the Swiss great’s goodbye had somehow wound up — against all odds — coming across as emotionally flat? Goulding was the sort of booking who could deliver a dash of available glamour while sealing the sense of occasion for a full crowd that had paid big money to be there.

Tennis being tennis, however, the two scheduled matches went on for an absolute aeon, meaning it was well past midnight when Federer hung up his racquet, slumped courtside and applauded the singer as she broke into Still Falling For You.

The performance gave photographers acres of time to capture Federer and doubles partner Rafael Nadal sobbing in unison. Everybody was Still Falling For Roger. It was just unfortunate that to Eurosport viewers, unable to see much of any career video montage, it seemed like the duo were bawling uncontrollably at the experience of sitting through not one but two of Goulding’s old hits.

Sport and show business have long been intertwined, as veterans of sound-challenged, cringe-laden, big pre-final stadium entertainment will know. It’s not always so sobering. It is usually harmless ceremonial faff that signals to crowds and armchair viewers that it’s time to top up their refreshments.

Not too many music festivals are interrupted for outbreaks of five-of-side, though, so unless the defensive moves required to avoid being rhythmically elbowed in the chest at gigs can be counted as a sport, it tends to be music that shows up at sport’s party, demanding a seat.

There is one obvious reason for this: nothing can garner a mass audience like a major sporting event. The music industry — fond of placing its bets on a small cohort of first-team, worked-to-death artists — eyes the broad popularity of the ballgame du jour and devises a pitch invasion praying some of it will rub off on them.

What do sporting authorities get in return? Good vibes, ideally, assuming they haven’t mucked up the PA system.

The hoopla surrounding the final game of the US National Football League (NFL) season is one of those things about American culture that I will never fully understand, like gun ownership or the Grammys, so it’s hard to vouch for how many Super Bowl purists are out there hating every moment of its traditional half-time fuss. But undoubtedly the Super Bowl is a special case, with its annual mid-game concert more important to some viewers than the Super Bowl itself

For sure, both Apple Music’s deal — reportedly a five-year arrangement costing $50 million (€52 million) a year — and confirmation that Rihanna will be one of the musicians performing at next February’s event in Arizona have sparked considerable media chatter.

With Rihanna rejecting a headline slot in 2019, telling Vogue that do so would be ‘a sellout’ and ‘an enabler’ of the NFL, her acceptance of a 2023 appearance is not without significance

The NFL hypes the half-time show to cement the status of the Super Bowl as an all-household event with appeal to younger viewers. Of late, it has also used it for reputational purposes, partnering with rapper and music mogul Jay-Z’s Roc Nation from 2019 onwards to help it repair its image following the much-criticised treatment of knee-taking former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick.

With Rihanna rejecting a headline slot in 2019, telling Vogue that do so would be “a sellout” and “an enabler” of the NFL, her acceptance of a 2023 appearance is not without significance.

Apple, meanwhile, has new cause to try to reach the US sports fan, having recently paid up for baseball and US soccer rights for Apple TV Plus and started chasing American football rights too.

Ambitions for Apple Music are more opaque. Indeed, news of the half-time show sponsorship may already have helped it achieve an infinitesimal portion of its aims by reminding people that Apple Music is a thing that exists.

What is Apple Music and what does it want with us? The answer has been hard to discern since its launch in 2015. The theory that streaming services — despite, or perhaps because, of the catalogue access they offer — have been bad for breaking new artists has many supporters. But even relative to its competitors, Apple Music lacks personality and verve.

In its financial statements, Apple lumps it together with the App Store, Apple Pay and iCloud in “services” and hasn’t offered an official subscriber total since mid-2019, when it said it had passed 60 million. It likely remains well behind Spotify’s tally of 188 million premium subscribers, making Apple Music the Pepsi to Spotify’s Coca-Cola.

The Swedish streaming market leader beat Apple to the sporting sponsorship game this summer by becoming the main sponsor of FC Barcelona and immediately threatening to “bring the worlds of music and football together”.

Barcelona is ridden with debt, so gleaning cash from an unprofitable audio streamer is not the worst deal it’s ever signed. Still, unless Spotify persuades Harry Styles to add striker to his portfolio career, its mission seems bound to underwhelm.

More untimely collisions between sport and music — or “exciting moments”, as per Spotify — now appear inevitable, with the Super Bowl half-time fandango, once treated as a unique curiosity, worryingly resembling an industry template.

Sport fans who show up and shell out solely for the, er, sport can only hope for the best possible outcome in this fraught situation: no new material.