Halftime shows have turned into the new must-get gigs

A comfortable celebrity bond has always existed between sports heroes and Hollywood stars at the ballpark.

The Lakers were synonymous with Doris Day well before the Jack Nicholson era. And stars have always made the rounds at prizefights. In fact, for the first Ali-Frazier bout in 1971, Burt Lancaster served as a closed-circuit TV commentator while Frank Sinatra shot photos for Life magazine.

But it wasn’t until the age of media consolidation that sports and entertainment figured out a way to make a buck off being at the game together.

A good example is the ever-more-conspicuous Super Bowl halftime show. The beginnings were humble. Marching bands from the universities of Michigan and Arizona supplied intermission entertainment and the national anthem at Super Bowl I in 1967.

By the late ’70s, the halftime gig had become a steady paycheck for the likes of the multiethnic musical touring group Up With People, which gave tribute to everything from the American Bicentennial (Super Bowl X) to the big-band era (XIV) to Motown (XVI) to the future itself (XX).

Of course, with the cost of a 30-second TV commercial increasing from an average of $42,000 for Super Bowl I to around $2.1 million for Super Bowl XXXVII in January, things changed.

Indeed, since 1990, with network-owning congloms such as Disney, Viacom and News Corp. seeking to maximize their huge broadcast rights investments, the National Football League’s mantra has clearly been “up with performers.”

In recent years, Bowl halftime shows have been powered by the likes of Gloria Estefan, Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Aerosmith, ‘NSync, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins, Shania Twain and No Doubt.

Sales of music CDs may be down around 10%, but performers can still expect a bump after appearing during the Super Bowl.

While Nielsen doesn’t break out halftime ratings for the Bowl, sales of U2′s album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” improved 142% on the heels of the band’s 2002 big-game performance.

“The Super Bowl is clearly the biggest and most dramatic marketing platform in the world,” says NFL senior VP of marketing John Collins, pointing to the game’s 40-plus household rating in the U.S. and millions of other viewers around the world. “We want the best, biggest, most relevant performers today to do our halftime and sing the national anthem.”

Successful at ending its season with a celebrity-filled bang, the NFL now starts its year off with its Kickoff Concert. Last year’s event in New York, produced by Clear Channel and overseen by award show guru Joel Gallen, featured Bon Jovi, Enrique Iglesias, Alicia Keys and Eve. The event closed down Times Square.

The power of big-name contemporary music acts to draw a youthful audience isn’t lost on the National Basketball Assn., either. Tie-ins between the NBA and the music biz include a monthly concert series at the league’s Gotham-based retail outlet (Destiny’s Child and Dream have performed at the Fifth Avenue store), and a regular stream of musicvids on the long-running Saturday ayem show “NBA Inside Stuff,” now on ABC.

Meanwhile, the league’s “Love It Live” TV ad campaign has featured the Rolling Stones, Santana, Michelle Branch, Elton John, Lenny Kravitz, Aguilera and Pink, among others.

Of course, from Nicholson to Spike Lee, the NBA has a well-established cachet among movie stars who are there just to see the game … and in some cases, with just-released projects tied to them, be seen themselves. Even in a glamour-challenged city such as East Rutherford, N.J., you could see Bruce Willis mugging for the ABC cameras during the NBA Finals in June.

“What the talent and labels are looking for is to present their product to an audience they might not otherwise reach,” says Charlie Rosenzweig, the NBA’s VP of entertainment and player management. “We skew younger and attract hip audiences.”

Not even considering comedian Roseanne’s infamous 1990 national anthem performance before a San Diego Padres game, it’s questionable as to just how entertaining any of these appearances are.

David L. Wolper, who produced, among other things, opening and closing ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics — which featured Lionel Richie, Etta James and 84 grand pianos used to play “Rhapsody in Blue,” not to mention a man in a jet pack descending into the Los Angeles Coliseum — says celebrity performances tied to big-league sports don’t show enough originality.

“It’s easy to run a star onto the field,” says Wolper, “but stars carry their own persona, and they don’t have a real relationship to the game.”

Still, with Britney Spears set to topline the NFL’s Kickoff Concert in Washington on Sept. 4, a return to the days of the marching bands is increasingly unlikely.

“There’s about as much chance of seeing Up With People on the Super Bowl halftime show,” says the NFL’s Collins, “as the Dallas Cowboys showing up for a game wearing leather helmets with no face masks.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more