Fox Sports’ Jacob Ullman on Bringing the Grateful Dead to the World Series and NASCAR

Josh Agajanian, Mr. Bob Weir and Jacob Ullman

It’s one of those situations where the quote ‘We are everywhere’ really applies. I think it probably hit a crescendo at the World Series, where everybody was watching and noticed, ‘Wow, they’re playing a lot of Grateful Dead and a lot of Phish,’” observes Jacob Ullman, senior vice president of Production and Talent Development at FOX Sports.

“It wasn’t a concerted effort. It just kind of happened and built up over time,” Ullman adds. “I would say we have three other like-minded people within our company. Joe Carpenter has been our lead audio mixer on baseball for many years, so jamband music has been happening during our baseball coverage for a while. He’ll play a lot of Widespread Panic while we’re going in and out of the commercials. Then we have a producer on baseball, Bryan Biederman and a guy named Jake Jolivette, who works on the football side. But, it was during the World Series, where more and more people seemed to be asking, ‘What’s going on at FOX sports?’ It just kind of happened. But, it was pretty cool to see how many people were watching and paying attention.”

Seven months prior to the World Series, FOX Sports energized Grateful Dead fans when Bob Weir sang the national anthem remotely prior to NASCAR’s Pro Invitational Series at Texas Motor Speedway on March 29. The invitation came from Ullman, who attended his very first Grateful Dead show in 1985 at age 12 and has remained an enthusiast ever since. Indeed, just a few weeks earlier, Ullman attended what would end up being his final live concert prior to quarantine (and his final air travel) when he celebrated his birthday with a trip to see Weir and Wolf Bros. at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. As he says with some understatement, “I made the last one count.”

While you were growing up, were you equally passionate about music and sports?

They were both major focuses for me. I used to say that one was 1A and the other was 1B and that, sometimes, they’d switch.

You know that question you ask a kid, “What do you want to be?” They’ll say, “I want to be an astronaut” or “I want to be a fireman.” Well, I wanted to be a sportscaster. Since I was very young that’s always been my focus. I’d do play by plays at home to the games on TV with the sound off.

But, I also grew up in a musical family. My grandfather is arguably the greatest French horn player to ever live. His name is Vince DeRosa. He worked in Hollywood from about 1940-1990 and appeared with a lot of famous musicians on their albums. I played the cello growing up and music was part of our lives.

My dad was a huge fan of what’s now referred to as classic rock. He had over a thousand albums. Dark Side of the Moon was our family’s favorite. I knew who Jimmy Cliff was before Bob Marley because The Harder They Come was a staple of our lives. And while I would not say that my dad was a Deadhead, he had some Grateful Dead albums, including a bootleg LP that was recorded at the Fillmore West in 1970 and Skeletons from the Closet, which was something we listened to a lot.

I grew up in Newport Beach, Calif., and our home venue was Irvine Meadows, which is synonymous with a lot of great Grateful Dead concerts. My dad took me to my first show in April of 1985, when I was 12 years old. It was definitely something. Then two summers later, when In The Dark and “Touch of Grey” happened, I had a friend—who was a couple of years older than me and more advanced in his Grateful Dead fandom— who took me to a couple of shows. That’s when I really got on the bus.

I went on to major in broadcast journalism at USC and was the sports director at the radio station. The summer between my sophomore and junior year at USC, I interned at Prime Ticket, which was a regional sports network based in Southern California, and I ended up getting a paid production assistant job my junior year. In June of 1994, I got a call from FOX Sports, which had yet to broadcast a minute of television but they were going to use computers and state-of-theart technology, so they were looking for college kids who wouldn’t be intimidated by that. I worked there parttime my senior year of college and I’ve been at FOX ever since.

Can you recall the first time that you had a hand in getting a piece of music that was really meaningful to you on the air?

I’m a huge Dave Matthews fan and, back when FOX used to have the NHL, I cut together some hockey highlights. It was the first thing I could put my own music on. Part of our job is picking the music, and there’s obviously a lot to choose from. So I put “Tripping Billies” on this hockey piece and I thought, “Wow, I just did that and it aired on national television.” It felt pretty freaking cool to choose something that meant something to me.

Can you describe the process of clearing the rights to use music during a sporting event?

Not to get too in the weeds, but there are different versions of things. For instance, there’s live use, where we’re going to a [commercial] break—what we call a rollout—where we play a song as we’re showing a couple highlights, like we do on Thursday Night Football and during the World Series. We have blanket deals with music publishing companies and there’s a clearing process through our music department, but that’s typically less stringent than if you edit something specifically to a song. It is a more involved process to get a song cleared for a feature piece on a player and their backstory. So there are various levels.

For a typical Thursday Night Football game, Jake Jolivette, who is an associate producer on the show, will try to clear a bunch of things for live use. I’ll give him some suggestions, sometimes based on where we are geographically. Then you might also end up hearing a song like “Althea,” which our music department had already cleared. We used it a variety of times in our baseball postseason coverage. And you’ll hear it in our NFL coverage because that’s one that’s already been cleared for use. It’s kind of in the repertoire at this point.

Do you remember the first time you dropped a Grateful Dead song onto the air?

The first time it even crossed my mind was during a NASCAR event. Every year, one of our biggest races is in Talladega, Ala. So, of course, there’s nothing more obvious than “Alabama Getaway.” That was the first time that I kind of thought: “Oh, this would play perfectly.” And since “Alabama Getaway” is not “Casey Jones” or “Truckin’” or “Sugar Magnolia,” people who got it were a little more on the inside. That’s the first time where I remember thinking, “Wow, this is a pretty cool way to blend my two worlds together.”

I imagine you’ve crossed paths with Bill Walton over the years.

I met Bill somewhere along the line at a show, probably at The Dead. I introduced myself and that’s when we realized how many people we knew in common. It just carried on from there, and we have a relationship where, now, we’ll catch up at different sporting events and even at some sports charity events. It’s pretty cool to have a kindred spirit.

I’ve always enjoyed the Grateful Dead references during his broadcasts. One time, when he used to do the NBA, they were going over all the teams and their chances of winning a championship. And when he got to the Houston Rockets, he said, “Houston, no, too close to New Orleans.” He just threw it in there with no context. Obviously only 1 percent of the audience probably got what he was saying, but I love the little lyric references and the light that he gets in. When he said that he was still working for NBC and it was a little more subtle. Now that he does college basketball on ESPN, it’s full-fledged— he’s not holding back, to any degree, what he incorporates into the broadcast.

What Bill and the announcers that I work with are able to do in real-time is pretty amazing. I’m blessed to work with Joe Buck, who is as good as there’s ever been in this business. Our Thanksgiving game had over 30 million viewers, and to do that without a net for three hours is pretty unbelievable. What makes sports so impressive is that it’s not scripted. You don’t know what’s going to happen in a game. So kudos to Bill and all the sportscasters I work with. It’s an extremely challenging job, which is not always fully appreciated.

How did you get Bob Weir to perform the national anthem for NASCAR?

I have a great friend named Josh Agajanian, whose family is in motorsports. We have mutual friends, so we met awhile ago. And then, years down the line, we saw each other backstage at the Wiltern in LA, where Bobby and Bruce Hornsby were doing a little West Coast duo tour. So we reconnected and then, through the NASCAR world, we started hanging out and going to a lot of shows together.

Josh is very good friends with Leilani Munter, who is Bobby’s sister-in-law. And, every year, Leilani would race at Daytona in a series called ARCA. As it turned out, Bobby came a few times and, through my relationship with Josh and then with Leilani, I got to spend some time with him at Daytona. He’d ask me questions about what was going on in the racetrack world and he was very intrigued by the production that we had put together, particularly the audio part of it. This was a place where he was out of his element and not getting bothered that much.

I’m also friends with his manager, Matt Busch. We probably met 15 years ago. I was on LinkedIn, it suggested “people you may know” and there was Matt Busch. So I sent him a friend request and we’ve stayed in touch over the years.

The anthem was an intersection of those worlds, with the pandemic forcing us to do everything virtually in terms of singing anthems, as opposed to people being able to be places in person. So Bobby was the numberone person I thought of when this came up and I reached out to Matt and asked if it was something that Bobby would be interested in. He said it might be perfect timing because everybody was at home at that point and wanted to be doing things, and Bobby was interested in doing an anthem solo. He’d done anthems with Jackie Greene and, prior to that, he’d done anthems at Giants games, usually with some combination of Warren and Phil and, of course, Jerry and Vince back in the day. But to do one solo was something different.

So lo and behold, he did it. I think his daughter shot it on his iPhone in their backyard. Then, probably two days later, he texted me and asked, “Are you sure that one’s OK?” I told him it was great, but he went, “Do I have time to redo it?” I said, “Absolutely.” So he ended up doing it again and, as good as the first one was, the second version was even better. It just blew me away that, not only was he up for doing it, but that he was also taking it really seriously and wanted it to be just right. It was bothering him that it wasn’t at the level that he wanted it to be.

He’s also a football fan, so I imagine you connect through that as well.

The worlds do connect. One really cool thing is, when we play Grateful Dead on our football broadcasts—including some 49ers games—he really appreciates it. Last year, during the playoff run, and even the Super Bowl, I made sure that there was some Grateful Dead represented not only for Bobby but also for everybody else who is a fan of the Grateful Dead.

Do you ever get feedback from Bobby or anyone else in the band after a particular usage?

I would say the last couple of years, really more than anything else, I’ll text over a clip to Bobby when something happens. On Thanksgiving [when the Dallas Cowboys were playing at their home stadium in Arlington, Texas], as we were going to break, we aired “Saint of Circumstance.” That’s one of my all-time favorites and has a good riff for going to break.

So I texted Bobby and his immediate reply was, “So heaven is right outside of Dallas?” He was obviously referring to the line “This must be heaven.” So it was pretty surreal that not only was he watching, but he was also able to come up with a funny one-liner about the Dallas Cowboys in their stadium outside of Dallas.

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