Country music and the NFL have long enjoyed a cozy relationship — from Hank Williams Jr., Carrie Underwood and Faith Hill serving as longtime NFL theme performers to Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw reaching #17 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. But when it comes to the Super Bowl, the alliance ends before the coin toss.
Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks, Underwood and Luke Bryan have all sung the National Anthem at the most watched television event of the year in the U.S., but since 1994 no halftime show has exclusively featured country acts. That year, Travis Tritt, Tanya Tucker, Clint Black and The Judds — and a cavalcade of line dancers — performed from Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in a revue named “Rockin’ Country Sunday.”
Furthermore, aside from Shania Twain — who was a full-fledged pop crossover act by the time she shared the stage with No Doubt and Sting in 2003 in San Diego — no country act has performed during halftime in a quarter of a century.
The blackout continues with Sunday’s game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, when Tim McGraw will debut his new single, “Thought About You,” during Super Bowl Llll’s pre-game festivities, but Maroon 5 and guests Travis Scott and Big Boi will play the halftime spectacular.
“This could be the biggest performance of an artist’s life as far as reaching a huge audience in one fell swoop,” says veteran Nashville label executive John Zarling. “It’s a shame that for nearly three decades now, there’s not been one single artist in the country format [other than Twain] that had the opportunity to be part of that moment.”
And what a moment it is. Though halftime performers don’t get paid for their 12 minutes of glory, they often score a monumental gain in sales and streaming. Following her 2017 halftime show, Lady Gaga saw a whopping 1,000 percent increase in her digital album and song sales, according to Nielsen. Other performers use their appearance as a platform to introduce new material or, as Madonna did in 2012, immediately afterward announce a world tour.
The NFL declined to comment, but a music industry executive who has consulted with the league believes “the NFL hasn’t booked a country act recently because they don’t think country plays internationally.”
The Super Bowl’s international audience is significant. An estimated 160 million viewers worldwide watched the 2017 game, according to IBC.com, accounting for almost 50 million viewers outside the U.S. (111.3 million people watched domestically, according to Nielsen).
While country’s profile is rising internationally thanks to increased touring outside the U.S. and events like C2C Festival, which brings country headliners to London, Glasgow and Dublin (and expands to Berlin and Amsterdam this year), country artists generally do not have the global following of their pop, rock and hip-hop counterparts.