When “Sunday Night Football” returns this weekend, it will have a new opening segment. As it has since 2013, that opening will star Carrie Underwood singing the show’s theme. It will again feature NFL players such as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown and the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller. And it will again be bigger in scope and scale than the previous season’s opening.
“It’s challenging, because we’ve been doing these since 2006,” says Fred Gaudelli, “Sunday Night Football” executive producer. “You have to try to find new ways to tell a very similar story.”
Gaudelli has been the lead producer on NBC’s flagship NFL telecast since it premiered more than a decade ago. He previously served in the same role at ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” This season will be his 28th year producing an NFL primetime game.
One constant for those games has been the opening. “Monday Night Football” introduced the idea of a music video leading off an NFL telecast when Hank Williams Jr. first recorded a variation of his country hit “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” for ABC in 1989. When NBC launched “Sunday Night Football” in 2006 — with a broadcast team recruited largely from ABC’s former “Monday Night” crew — Gaudelli imported the idea and upped the star power. In the first season, pop star Pink performed a retooled version of Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” Country star Faith Hill took over the opening the following year, eventually handing off to Underwood. Last year, the theme song was switched to “Oh, Sunday Night,” based in part on Underwood’s 2014 duet with Miranda Lambert, “Somethin’ Bad.”
For this year’s opening, Underwood has tweaked the song slightly. But the big changes are in the video, developed by Gaudelli and director Tripp Dixon, which features the singer and several players leading fans through the cities of their favorite teams.
“They always feel like they make everything bigger and more grand than the year before,” Underwood says of the NBC Sports team. “Here I feel like they wanted a theme of unity amongst all the sports fans. Everybody’s tuning in. Everybody’s got their teams that they’re rooting for.”
To add to the impact, Gaudelli drew inspiration from Hollywood. Watching red-carpet coverage before the ceremony in January on E!, he took a shine to the “Glambot,” a super slow-motion camera that shoots 300 frames per second. E! used the camera to show off red-carpet fashions on the likes of Taraji P. Henson and Jennifer Lopez. Gaudelli wanted it to show off players like Miller and Gates leaping and diving — with the help of special effects — over entire cityscapes.
“It’s going to be very dramatic, very slow, superhero-like action,” Gaudelli said. “We’re going to merge all of these very realistic worlds with these very surreal worlds. It’s very symbolic of ‘Sunday Night Football’ — it’s football, but it’s football on performance-enhancing drugs.” Figuratively speaking.
Shot over three days on the Universal lot, the new opening boasts a budget in the seven-figure range. Gaudelli, Underwood, Dixon, and company also took a fourth day to shoot the opening segment for Super Bowl 52.
In the past, when NBC has had the Super Bowl, the opening segment has featured a variation on the “Sunday Night Football” theme. But this year, Gaudelli asked Underwood to write a new number. Her song “The Champion” will debut ahead of the big game in February.
“I think it’s going to become a sports anthem,” he says. “It’s going to be one of those songs that you see cut to highlights for the next 25 years.”
Underwood — whose hockey-player Mike Fisher retired from the Nashville Predators at the end of last season — was able to test the song with a small audience in the target demo.
“My husband loved it,” she says. “He would listen to it before playoff games. He was like ‘I want everyone to hear it!’ and I had to tell him, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t play it in the locker room. I’m sorry.’ But that was a good indicator that we were on the right track.”