How Dolly Parton, Jack Harlow & Steve Aoki Ended Up Playing Halftime at NFL Thanksgiving Games

How Dolly Parton, Jack Harlow & Steve Aoki Ended Up Playing Halftime at NFL Thanksgiving Games

When it comes to the marriage of football and music, all eyes are generally focused on the Super Bowl, but in recent years, Thanksgiving has become a spectacular ratings feast of its own for the NFL as it combines two of America’s favorite pastimes. 

Last year, the three football games played on Thanksgiving drew a total audience of 138 million viewers (defined by Nielsen as the number of people who watched for at least 1 minute of the games). That’s not only a record high for the holiday games, but it makes the NFL’s three halftime shows the most watched music events on television other than the Super Bowl, easily surpassing all major awards shows.

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This year could topple that record, as Dolly Parton performs the halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Commanders game, Jack Harlow at the Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers game and Steve Aoki at the Seattle Seahawks vs. the San Francisco 49ers game.

The Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving Day game every year since 1934, and the Cowboys since 1966. In 2006, the NFL added a third Thanksgiving game in prime time, with the match-up changing annually. 

Like the Super Bowl, conversations about potential Thanksgiving halftime entertainment begins months in advance, often as early as the spring. “All three teams came to me at the outset to discuss options,” says Seth Dudowsky, the NFL’s head of music. “We collectively brainstorm, and I provide feedback on artist opportunities based on conversations across the industry throughout the offseason. From there, we align on best options and move forward with an offer coming from the team.”

Though the league’s 32 teams have their own dedicated staffs to lead their franchise’s entertainment efforts, Dudowsky’s role is to “be a bridge to the artist and larger music community, while helping teams strategize on artist selection, production execution, media planning, music clearances, and ultimately help the teams and artists tap into the vast NFL ecosystem.”

For this year’s Thanksgiving halftime shows, Dudowsky helped facilitated the introductions between the artists’ teams and Detroit’s senior vp of marketing and brand Emily Griffin and Seattle’s manager of game entertainment and special events Daniel Hardina to help them secure Harlow and Aoki. The Cowboys’ executive vp/chief brand officer Charlotte Jones and vp of brand and marketing Meredith Counce met with Parton’s team when the superstar was in Frisco, Texas, in May to host the Academy of Country Awards after ACM executive director Damon Whiteside made the introductions.

Similarly to the Super Bowl, which will feature Usher at next year’s Feb. 11 game, the goal is to book acts with a broad audience. “We’re looking to feature artists who can appeal to all ages, are culturally relevant, are great performers and ultimately can help us create amazing memories for the fans in attendance and at home,” Dudowksy says. “For us, that isn’t confined to one genre or any specific metric.”

Like the Super Bowl, the acts play for free — though as viewership has risen, the slots have become more competitive. “Certainly as the platform and the game ratings continues to grow, the music community has taken note,” Dudowsky says. “In a media landscape where cutting through the noise is the hardest thing to do, these games provide an unprecedented platform for artist exposure.”

Past halftime performers at Thanksgiving games have included Jonas Brothers, Luke Combs, Pitbull, Destiny’s Child, Big Sean, Bebe Rexha, Mariah Carey and Enrique Iglesias. 

Landing a superstar like Parton “only further cements the NFL Thanksgiving halftime shows as a platform worthy of the biggest superstars in music,” Dudowsky says.  

Each artist performs for roughly six minutes. Fox will air Harlow’s halftime show in full, as will CBS with Parton. NBC will show clips of Aoki’s DJ set interspersed with other footage. The NFL owns the performances and will post Parton’s and Harlow’s sets on their socials following the games.

Parton’s manager, Danny Nozell, says her appearance will feature the biggest production the Cowboys have ever done for a halftime show. Because the time constraints are so precise — Nozell says Parton will perform for exactly six minutes and 15 seconds — they designed a stage on wheels in Nashville for her to practice. “Dolly rehearsed [the halftime show] for a full week here because I didn’t want her going into Dallas and having her going on to the stage for the first time.” Plus, since going over cuts into advertising time, Nozell says, “Dolly is all over me to make sure that she is on that stage and off that stage so we don’t cause anybody heartache and then we are not losing anyone money.”

For Aoki, it was an immediate yes after the DJ’s agent at WME approached him with the offer. “We see sports events are a great unifier,” says his manager Matt Colon. “Performing at a top tier event like F1 last weekend, where Steve performed for the opening, or the NFL game this Thursday allows Steve to not only to play to a larger in person audience but also to a huge swath of demographics that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to his music or come to his show, and then amplified to a broadcast audience often in the millions or more.”

Aoki’s performance will incorporate an LED light show with fans handed light-up wristbands upon entry, according to a Seahawks press release. 

Additionally, the artists are taking advantage of the games for some additional promotion. Harlow has posted fun TikToks, including one with the Lions’ social media manager, as well as appeared on Monday Night Football on Oct. 30 to announce his Thanksgiving appearance, both of which have also helped boost awareness around his new single “Lovin’ on Me.” 

Parton, who released Rockstar on Nov. 17, is selling a 2-CD Dallas Cowboys limited edition of the album on her website for $24.95. The exclusive, according to the website, can only be sold at the game and online to certain areas of Texas and across Oklahoma, per NFL rules. A Dolly/Dallas Cowboys T-shirt is available via the Cowboys’ website.

Appearing in the Thanksgiving halftime is a “steppingstone” to potentially playing the Super Bowl, Nozell says. “It’s moving in that direction,” he says. “Dolly and I have talked about it several different times and we thought, ‘Let’s do this first because it really is the second largest viewership to the Super Bowl.’”

Grammy best new artist nominee The War and Treaty will perform the national anthem at the Detroit game; Dallas will feature trumpeter Freddie Jones, who has played the anthem before every Dallas home game since 2013; and Tinashe will handle the honors in Seattle.

For the first time, the NFL will air a game on Black Friday via its deal with Amazon, which began streaming Thursday Night Football games this season. Coordinated through Amazon Music Live, Black Friday’s game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets will feature a halftime interview with Garth Brooks promoting his concert from his Nashville bar, Friends in Low Places, that will stream on Amazon Prime and Twitch later that night. 

As for Dudowsky, he’ll be watching the Thanksgiving games from his couch, although likely not in a post-turkey, tryptophan-induced coma like millions of Americans. He’ll have his phone and laptop at hand, “ready to react to any last minute (or in-show) issues and how we’re posting afterwards,” he says. “We have incredible production teams at all three games handling the performances on the ground, so if everything goes according to plan, it’s a great day of football, food and music I get to enjoy from home.”

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