Words by Annie Bacon
The Golden State Warriors got a message shortly before their early March visiting game against the New York Knicks that the first half of the basketball game would be played without any audio or visual entertainment. In other words, Madison Square Garden would be silent except for bouncing balls, whistles, and sneaker screeches. “Enjoy the sounds of the game,” the jumbotron read.
Afterwards, players and coaches on both sides of the court expressed displeasure with the experience. Draymond Green, the Warriors’ power forward, told reporters: “That was pathetic. It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything.” Knicks’ guard Courtney Lee added that, “(Music) gets the fans into the game, it keeps them in tune with what’s going on as opposed to it being quiet.”
Nobody knows this better than music director and audio operator Lee Merritts, who orchestrates the beautiful noise of home games for the Warriors — as well as for the Oakland A’s, San Francisco Giants, Oakland Raiders, and Stanford Athletics — here in the Bay Area. Merritts knows that music is essential not only to the rhythm of the game for players, but to the enjoyment of the fans. From pre-game warm-ups to walk-up music, “stingers” (short instrumental bursts of songs squeezed between whistles or innings), and post-game playlists, as many as 100 pieces of music might be heard in a single game. It’s Merritts’ job to decide exactly which ones, and then like a “lone wolf” DJ, to weave them into the audio experience of the game.
Merritts’ early years were filled with a wide array of musical influences: One brother was deep into hip-hop, while the other only listened to heavy metal. His parents spun Motown records. This shaped his ears, and he taught himself enough piano and drums to begin experimenting with creating samples and loops. Merritts enrolled in San Francisco State University’s Department of Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) with an audio production emphasis. Later, he worked for Universal Music as a marketing intern for Hollywood Records’ Urban Music department.
At the same time, Merritts was a lifelong athlete. He jumped at an opportunity for an internship with the Oakland A’s. It was in the sales department, but the interviewer immediately saw that he’d be happier with Diamond Vision, the team responsible for the audio and visual entertainment at the games.
“I got an interview over there and got the job,” Merritts says a few weeks ago over coffee in the Mission. “I could see it was (a lot of) video production, but then I see the audio room — I see a mixing board and audio gear, and it’s overlooking the stadium and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” That was it for Merritts. He worked closely for several years with long-time audio operator Eric Olson who mentored him on the art, eventually taking over for him at the A’s. Over the course of the next few years, Merritts also shadowed then succeeded Michael Addicott (aka DJ Add1) at the Warriors’ Coliseum. The Raiders and Giants followed.
Eventually, Merritts began to have double bookings and, being a contractor rather than a staff member of any of the teams, was responsible for finding a replacement for games he couldn’t direct. Being naturally entrepreneurial, Merritts saw an opportunity and founded Game Day Audio Operators to train and employ other audio engineers. A request from Stanford Athletics — basketball, football, volleyball, and baseball — provided a great low-stakes training opportunity. “Its not as much pressure, so it allows me to train somebody and show them the ropes, in terms of how I organize my music and the flow of the game. I can transition them to the Giants or the A’s and they understand my work flow,” Merritts told me.
The most recognizable song in all of sports continues to be “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” the 7th inning stretch classic originally penned in 1908 by Tin Pan Alley writers Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, who apparently had never attended a game before they wrote the song. It seems certain that someone like Merritts would be burnt out on the song, but he said, “Nah, it’s baseball. I’m a big baseball fan. So it’s one of those things that sounds