In 1992, CBS Sports held a contest to find new theme music for its NCAA tournament telecasts.
Bob Christianson was one of a handful of composers given one week to submit recordings that mimicked the pace and energy of college basketball in March.
Eager to beat out the other entrants, Christianson holed up in his brownstone apartment on the west side of Manhattan and began his usual routine to think of a new melody. He vacuumed the floors, washed the dishes, dusted the windows — anything to resist the temptation to go down to his basement studio and sit in front of his piano.
“If you sit down at the piano, your fingers go where they’re comfortable,” Christianson told Yahoo Sports. “You’re going to write something that’s pretty much the same old s—.”
The melody that took shape in Christianson’s head during his cleaning frenzy has become one of the most familiar and beloved themes in all of sports. More than a quarter century later, it remains the soundtrack of college basketball, a song as synonymous with March Madness as brackets and buzzer beaters.
In the original version of his song, Christianson imbues the opening section with the percussive sound of a basketball hitting a hardwood floor. Then the iconic melody hits, creating interest with a repetitive structure and an emphasis on the note “G” instead of the more expected “C.”
Though CBS has redone Christianson’s song a few times to make it more modern, the essence is the same today as it was in 1993. “Da-na-na-na-Dun-daa-na-na” will still be inescapable for anyone within earshot of a television or streaming device from Selection Sunday until the first Monday in April.
Stefanie Acevedo, an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Dayton, has fond memories of the March Madness theme from her time as a member of Florida’s basketball pep band during the Gators’ back-to-back national title runs in 2006 and 2007. Acevedo attributes the theme’s popularity and longevity less to its catchy melody and more to the frequency it is played and the feelings of excitement and nostalgia it evokes.
“Your emotional connection to March Madness is really important to the longevity of the theme,” Acevedo told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not just an earworm that gets stuck in your head. It also has all this emotional connotation that goes along with it.”
The unsung key to the staying power of Christianson’s song is that CBS has not relinquished the broadcast rights to March Madness for almost 40 years. That ensured a transition between TV networks did not force a change in themes.
CBS Sports creative director Pete Radovich described Christianson’s NCAA tournament theme as “iconic.” The way Radovich sees it, CBS has no reason to ever move away from a song that is instantly identifiable with college basketball and summons a rush of exhilaration, joy and fond memories.
“What we have is the best-case scenario,” Radovich told Yahoo Sports. “When you find that great piece of music, why would you mess with it?”
The only time Radovich remembers having serious discussions about new NCAA tournament theme music came in 2010 when CBS first partnered with Turner Sports to air March Madness on four different channels. Some executives argued a new era required a complete rebrand — an overhaul of the graphics, logos, music and on-air talent. Others were adamant Christianson’s song remained a fixture.
The result was a compromise. Trevor Rabin, a former YES guitarist who also composed the theme for the NBA on TNT broadcasts, subtly remixed Christianson’s song, preserving the core melody but adding some contemporary flourishes.
“I can remember sitting in those meetings and discussing the theme music,” Radovich said. “There were very weak arguments for changing it. It seemed like changing it would have just been for the sake of change, not to make it better. Cooler heads prevailed in that situation thankfully, and we kept it. It was like this is our music. We’re just going to clean it up and modernize it a bit.”
While Christianson didn’t always aspire to be creating melodies for TV networks, music has long been his calling. The New York native learned to play the piano at age 5 and began composing songs by age 12. As a teenager, he played in rock bands in Greenwich Village and dreamed of becoming the next Billy Joel.
“I spent a lot of time and money going down that path,” Christianson said, “but what I learned early on about the music business was you sort of have to ride the horse in the direction it’s going.”
That mentality explains Christianson’s meandering yet successful career path. He has recorded songs with the likes of Dianna Ross and Aretha Franklin. He has composed music for movies and TV shows, including HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Sex and the City.” And in 2014, he landed an Emmy nomination for his musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, “A Christmas Carol.”
Of course, Christianson’s legacy-defining work remains the 25-plus sports themes he has written for CBS, ABC and ESPN.
ESPN’s dark, Batman-esque National Hockey Night theme? That was Christianson.
ESPN’s fast-paced, energetic college basketball theme from the 1990s? Also Christianson.
The soaring theme from CBS’ short-lived foray into Major League Baseball coverage? Yes, Christianson did that too.
What separates the CBS college basketball theme from Christianson’s other work is its staying power. It’s as entrenched in sports culture as the classic themes to SportsCenter, Monday Night Football and the NBA on NBC.
CBS and Turner Sports reinforce the theme song’s connection to the NCAA tournament by playing it on a loop during the month of March. The full song plays at the top of the broadcast each day. Variations air accompanying highlight packages or coming into and out of commercials during the NCAA tournament’s 67 games and associated studio shows.
“You have to find a balance,” Radovich said. “You want it to be recognizable. You want people to instantly know what they’re watching when they hear that music. But at the same time, there’s a line where you’ve got to be careful about being annoying about it.”
One person who will never be annoyed hearing that theme song is Christianson. He makes a few dollars in royalties every time it plays.
While Christianson isn’t a diehard college basketball fan — his alma mater is Division III SUNY Potsdam — he says he always turns to CBS on the first day of the NCAA tournament to make sure he hears his song.
“Once I hear the theme, I go, ‘Yesss!’ ” he said, laughing.
Christianson is especially grateful to his friend Doug Towey, the former CBS Sports executive with a legendary ear for music. It was Towey who chose to play “One Shining Moment” at the end of the NCAA tournament, selected CBS’ longstanding college football theme and blindly picked Christianson’s recording from the submissions to the 1992 contest.
“The NCAA theme is going to be etched on my gravestone, and I don’t say that as a bad thing,” Christianson said. “I’m eternally grateful to CBS for giving me the opportunity to compete.”
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