Behind The Scenes

Inside the making of Nelly’s
The Champ song, video for ESPN

Since it was uploaded to ESPN’s YouTube Channel in mid-December, the video for Nelly’s The Champ has been viewed nearly 500,000 times.

That’s impressive, but that figure reflects perhaps just a slice of the millions of impressions the tune has made.

The Champ is being used throughout ESPN’s exclusive coverage of 33 bowl games in December and January, culminating in Monday’s AllState BCS Championship Game between LSU and Alabama (8:30 ET, ESPN, ESPN3D, ESPN3).

Nelly and ESPN have worked together on numerous occasions, usually when the network repurposes one of the two-time Grammy Award-winning rapper’s songs for use in highlight packages.

But The Champ project is unique in two respects: Nelly wrote the song specifically for ESPN’s use; and the network commissioned a full-length video to accompany an entire original song for use during its coverage.

Nelly was inspired to write the song while watching the St. Louis Cardinals’ run to the World Series title last October, ESPN Music Director Kevin Wilson said.

The St. Louis native and Wilson have collaborated on a number of ESPN projects. The rapper contacted Wilson to talk about the genesis of The Champ.

Nelly and ESPN Senior Creative Director Christopher Mantzaris (right) huddle. (Photo credit: Rick Paiva)

“He wanted to talk to me about a song he had started to write. The hook was recorded, but it was just the demo. He played me the hook and then he sang me the verse over the phone,” Wilson said.

“I’ve had some really, really cool moments working here, but that was one of the best of them.”

Wilson lauded the song’s lyrics — which center on athletes fulfilling their dreams and are illustrated in parts of the video — and the beat.

“It’s a different type of song. It’s not the typical, in-your-face uptempo track,” said Wilson.

“The lyrics are amazing, it’s a great song.”

Wilson played the song for Senior Coordinating Producer Bill Graff as well as Producer Michael Diesenhof, Music Coordinator Joanne Strange and Music Coordinating Director Claude Mitchell. They sent their suggestions back to Nelly, who delivered a version of the song for ESPN’s use.

After getting clearances from Nelly’s music label Universal Republic, the camps combined on ideas for a video shoot.

Senior Creative Director Christopher Mantzaris oversaw the video, which was filmed at Florida International University in Miami.

“We had a conference call with Nelly and asked him what went into the new song he had just finished,” Mantzaris said.

“He explained the backstory of this song, that it’s more of a reflective journey an athlete partakes in his or her journey through adolescence.”

Nelly’s lyrics “allowed us to take a more narrative approach” in a full-length video, Mantzaris said.

Usually, ESPN’s music collaborations result in videos about a minute in length. Nelly’s song is flexible enough to build videos of various running times.

Working with his team of Wilson, Associate Producer Jessica Gonnella, Post Production Editor Jeremy Edney, animator Justin Nardone and executive producer VP Creative Services Rick Paiva, Mantzaris prepped for the live action shoot.

“We were able to lay out five storylines or scenes to support the narrative journey of Nelly’s lyrics with a collegiate football backdrop,” said Mantzaris.

“It was a very smooth production. Nelly was very invested in this project and a complete professional. I had an amazing team during all phases of the project and it was such a collective effort.”

The results you see in the video above.

According to Wilson, the song is available now as a single on ITunes and is being considered for inclusion in Nelly’s next album that is due some time in 2012.

For more on this project, read ESPN.com special contributor Vincent Thomas’ interview with Nelly by clicking here.

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