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How the Partnership Between ESPN & Atlantic Records Led to a Symba Hit

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Boardroom takes you behind the scenes of the creation of the exclusive Symba song that the NBA on ESPN will use for the upcoming Play-in Tournament.

The world of music and sports are forever intertwined with one another. There are athletes who thought they could have made a career in music and artists who think they could have gone on to play professional sports. This often results in artists name-dropping athletes, and even lifelong friendships.

ESPN is leaning into the parallelisms between music and sports. In October, the “worldwide leader in sports” announced a partnership with Atlantic Records for the record label’s artists to create exclusive music that would serve as the soundtrack for the NBA season. Early in the season, Ty Dolla $ign and Mustard released a remix to their song “My Friends” so it could be outfitted for the NBA season.

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Relationship Between ESPN & Atlantic

In previous years, ESPN’s music strategy has varied. The game plan in recent years was catered to quarterly releases from artists. In 2017, Kendrick Lamar‘s album DAMN. curated much of the year’s playoff. Hits like “Humble” and “DNA” were used to tease matchups between teams. The same can be said for Lamar’s former labelmate, Schoolboy Q, who released his album CrasH Talk in April 2019, nearly two weeks after the playoffs began. Two songs from his album “Floating” featuring 21 Savage and “Water” featuring Lil Baby were used during commercials and in the lead-up to the postseason. ESPN’s vice president of sports marketing, Emeka Ofodile, has been leading things on the ESPN side.

“We felt like we could help story tell the season through the lens of music,” Ofodile said. “We wanted to do it in a way that would connect people to basketball and its players. We created this custom music strategy because we have to live into the ethos of what the NBA is and what the athletes are — it is creating culture. So everything we do has to custom and it has to be new to advance the culture conversation.”

Originally, ESPN had conversations with a wide variety of music labels, but Atlantic understood what the sports media giant was trying to do right away. This made them a fitting partner.

Ofodile doesn’t view Atlantic’s artist curating as a shift in strategy from what ESPN used to do but more so an expansion of what they can do in the future.

“If the timeline makes sense, we are still open to doing things with artists who release albums during the Spring,” he said. “What this gave us an opportunity to do was create another level of storytelling to create original lyrics to make it topical and relevant to what is happening in the NBA at that specific moment. At the end of the day we wanted to expand the aperture of what music could do with the NBA platform.”

Other artists who have been a part of the ESPN programming through Atlantic include Janelle Monae — who was featured in this year’s Celebrity Game during All-Star Weekend — and Bankrol Hayden.

“Atlantic does a great job of working with their artist, seeing which artist would work well for the opportunity and which artists are passionate about it,” Ofodile said. “They will come to us and it becomes a collaborative discussion about what makes the most sense.”

With the Play-in Tournament just around the corner, Bay Area rapper Symba was enlisted to create a song for it that will resonate with fans. He and Rayven Tyler, the artist featured on the record, created a hit titled “Outrageous.” The uptempo track roars into the ears of listeners as the duo rap/sing about overcoming obstacles and striving for greatness. The song was officially released last week.

But how does one create a song specifically for a tournament that is looked forward to all season long? Boardroom was there to take you behind the scenes.

Symba Locked in the Studio

If someone were to walk into the studio and see Symba’s recording process, they might be confused.

Symba is murmuring words as he walks around saying the names of NBA teams and players. There is no paper or pen in sight. Then, before you know it he has a line:

“I am nothing but net like Mikal Bridges / Steph Curry with the left hand / Trae Young how I handle business.”

For the people in the studio who have never seen his recording process, watching him find rhymes out of thin air is puzzling. Different questions arise in all of our minds.

“Did you write any of this before you got here?”

Symba’s response: “No pens, no paper,” he says laughing, but he is absolutely serious. “Everything comes from up here,” he said pointing to his head. “It saves me time.”

Not an easy process, to say the least.

ESPN marketing coordinator Mohammed “Mo” Ahmed is sitting on a couch with a sheet of paper that has team names and players that Symba must have a line about. Ahmed is the main person leading the session for ESPN. In previous years, the number of teams Symba would have to rap would have been easier because standings were not as fluid as they are today. Currently, seven different teams can potentially qualify for the Play-in Tournament in the Western Conference.

The way an artist records music can vary. Some artists prefer that the number of people in the studio is to a minimum while others may not mind a crowded environment as long as they can focus. Symba prefers the former, and he definitely does not want anyone telling him what to do with his music. But when your label has a partnership with ESPN, everything has to be to the liking of the sports media giant.

One would think this could cause tension if Mo did not think Symba’s lyrics matched the vibe that ESPN was looking for. But Symba is a natural. Once he gets done with a line about a team or player, he asks Mo who is next and he steps into the booth and has a line about them in a matter of minutes.

“With this [song] it is very intentional and attention to detail is important because it is the widest audience you’re probably going to get on TV. You don’t want to say anything that doesn’t make sense. One thing I’ve learned about being an artist is that sometimes we live in our world so much we forget other people exist in their own. So what I may like may not be fitting for the company is going for,” Symba said during an interview in his new apartment.

He goes on to tell Boardroom how the process was fairly easy. He sent ESPN the first draft of the record and ESPN sent back notes.

“When I first saw the notes, I thought they was trippin’ but it made a lot more sense once we corrected the first thing and started tweaking everything. It was a lot of fun to see it all unfold,” Symba, who spends about five hours in the studio knocking out the necessary tasks before retiring for the day, said.

Day 2 is all about shooting the spot that will air to tease the play-in matchups. Symba is sporting a sleek white jacket that features all 30 NBA teams’ logos. He is accompanied by Tyler, who sings the chorus of the single and is dressed in an all-black patent leather outfit with futuristic shades covering her eyes.

Tyler is first up in the booth. She does a number of different takes mixing up her performance styles as she sings the lyrics. In the background of Tyler performing is one of her friends hyping her up saying things like “YAS,” “OUTRAGEOUS,” and “TALK TO ‘EM.” Rayven was clearly feeding off that energy because as she continued to rap the words, you could see her confidence growing. When she was satisfied with her takes, she stops and heads back to her dressing room.

Symba then takes the booth and he is already feeling good.

“Let’s go, I’m ready. What we waiting on?” he says as he awaits the music to be played.

Symba raps with the same confidence Russell Westbrook plays with. When he’s in the booth, he speaks like he is invincible.

“You got to have confidence, Symba said. “Truthfully, I’m just excited for this record to be on ESPN. I already got a tease of what it’s gon’ look like, so I gotta bring the energy when I’m in here.”

The last portion of the day is when Symba and Tyler take the booth together and rap the entire song. It is fun to watch the two artists feed off of each other. Though the space in the area they are performing in is small, they never bump into one another as they vibe out to the music. When they’re done, the team comes together for a group picture before parting ways.

After the Play-in Tournament is over, ESPN and Atlantic will go back to the drawing board to decide who will be the artist featured for the NBA Playoffs and NBA Finals.

“At the end of the day, for this thing to work, it’s got to be authentic to everyone on every level. Because if it isn’t, the fans are going to see right through it,” Ofodile said.

“We’re just getting started and what we’ve seen is the artist gravitate to this partnership. We want more and more artists to play a part in this. And we want to begin thinking about the ways the music can extend, whether that be a live performance or the making of the song. Bringing all these things together for fans to connect with this is the goal.”

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About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a former Staff Writer at Boardroom specializing in sports business and music. He previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester, and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" -- Hampton University — is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.