During his first press conference for “Monday Night Football,” new ESPN hire Joe Buck noted his late announcer father Jack Buck would be “stunned” at the multimillion-dollar contracts being handed out like candy to NFL TV talent.
“It’s been kind of crazy,” Buck admitted.
That’s the understatement of the year. Over the past 27 months, top analysts and play-by-play announcers have scored combined deals worth more than $1 billion as NFL TV morphs into a superstar-driven business.
Tom Brady, the winningest quarterback of all time, has agreed to call games for Fox Sports when he retires. Buck and partner Troy Aikman are jumping to rival ESPN after 20 years, and six Super Bowls together, at Fox. Al Michaels and ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit are teaming to call Amazon Prime Video’s exclusive coverage of “Thursday Night Football.”
Three ex-quarterbacks — Brady, Aikman, and CBS’ Tony Romo — will make more money calling football than they did playing it.
So what sparked the Big Bang of sports TV?
We interviewed talent, executives, and agents to find out.
The high stakes free-agent carousel, they report, resulted from a “perfect storm” of unicorn personalities like Romo, new competitors like Amazon, and gamesmanship between the NFL’s longtime TV partners: CBS, Fox, NBC, and ESPN.
Romo Changes The Game
Only five years ago, the NFL TV scene was a much quieter place. Most No. 1 analysts had held their seats for years.
Phil Simms had served as CBS’ lead analyst for 19 years; Aikman and Buck had reigned as Fox’s No. 1 team since 2002; Cris Collinsworth was entering his ninth season with Michaels at NBC; Jon Gruden was heading back to the NFL after nine pedestrian years in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” booth.
On April 4, 2017, CBS announced it was hiring a then-36-year-old Romo as its top analyst. It was a big risk. But CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus teamed the TV rookie with veterans Jim Nantz and sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson.
- Romo’s first TV contract was nothing special: $3 million annually for three years. But he proved to be a special broadcaster.
- With his first-hand knowledge of today’s pass-happy NFL, and a discerning eye for modern defenses, Romo was an overnight TV sensation, nicknamed “Romostradamus” for his fortune-teller-like ability to predict plays.
As with the league, NFL television is a copycat business. The cry went out: “Find the next Tony Romo.”
As Romo neared free agency in 2019, the Worldwide Leader in Sports launched a full-court press to steal him from CBS. Now that Romo was the toast of NFL TV, CBS was not going to let ESPN snatch him away.
So in 2020, Romo and CAA negotiated a then-record $18 million-per-year deal with CBS that made him the first eight-figure announcer in sports TV history. If that seemed unbelievable at the time, it’s now the going rate.
Within two years, Aikman equaled Romo’s $18 million annual salary via a five-year, $90 million pact from ESPN. Within two months of Aikman’s deal, Brady surpassed both with a monster 10-year, $375 million package from Fox.
As for Buck, he didn’t do badly either, scoring a five-year, $75 million contract with ESPN.
White Whale Manning
With Romo off the chess board, networks continued to hotly pursue Peyton Manning, who retired from the Denver Broncos in 2016. ESPN and Fox promised “Romo Money,” or more, if they could land the elusive “White Whale” of sports TV.
Manning didn’t give in until 2021. But even then, he and brother Eli did it on their own terms, with their free-wheeling “ManningCast” on ESPN2.
- News of the Manning offers — along with publicity over Romo’s contract — allowed incumbents to drive a harder bargain with their networks.
- Top talents like Aikman, Collinsworth and Nantz negotiated raises that took their compensation into eight-figure territory.
The popularity of the “ManningCast” is leading to more experimentation. Now Amazon is trying to lure Pat McAfee. He could host one of multiple alternative telecasts of “Thursday Night Football” this fall.
Amazon As Stalking Horse
The COVID-19 pandemic could have stopped the salary inflation before it really got started.
Luckily for TV talent and agents, the free-agent sweepstakes came as NFL partners were negotiating over $100 billion in media rights that will pay the league a staggering $10 billion a year through 2033.
The most intriguing bidder: Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer with 2021 sales of $469.8 billion.
It quickly became clear Amazon would score exclusive rights to “Thursday Night Football.” The deep-pocketed tech giant began competing against legacy networks for A-List analysts, announcers and production executives.
Amazon was rumored to be pursuing big names ranging from Brady and Manning to Super Bowl-winning NFL coaches Sean Payton and Sean McVay. With a market capitalization of over $1 trillion, agents used Amazon as a stalking horse to squeeze better terms for their clients.
Then the savvy Aikman raised the stakes.
- TV talent almost never publicly comment on their contracts. Despite two decades at Fox, the three-time Super Bowl winner openly discussed his negotiations with Amazon.
- “We’re kind of having those conversations right now,” Aikman told FOS in January. “So I don’t know if I will be with Amazon. And I don’t know if I will be continuing with Fox at this moment.”
- Those comments registered loud and clear at ESPN headquarters in Bristol.
While Fox circled the wagons against Amazon, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro swooped in to steal first Aikman, then Buck. The duo will now team with sideline reporter Lisa Salters to create the best “Monday Night Football” booth since the late Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith.
When it came to Brady’s possible retirement, suitors didn’t waste a second. As soon as the gun sounded on the Bucs’ playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 23, the lucrative offers began pouring in to Brady’s agent at WME. The result: the richest contract in sports TV history.
The NFL’s Popularity
The NFL is the most dominant property in television, leaving news, dramas, comedies and reality shows in its dust.
Live NFL games accounted for 75 of the Top 100 most-watched TV programs in 2021.
- With an average audience of 19.3 million across linear/digital platforms, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has reigned as prime time’s No. 1 TV show for a record 11 straight years.
- The Super Bowl annually ranks as the most-watched TV program, with over 208 million viewers (or two-thirds of the U.S. population), tuning in for Super Bowl LVI.
Now that the money’s flowing, agent Mark Lepselter of Maxx Sports & Entertainment Group expects salaries to rise for top TV talent calling the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and other sports.
“When deals of this magnitude are getting done, there’s no downside for anybody who’s a talent in the broadcasting industry overall — and sports broadcasting in particular,” Lepselter said.
Putting a Shine on the Shield
Top TV talents do more than get NFL fans to watch.
These big personalities help attract blue-chip advertisers and sponsors. Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch, for example, called Brady an “ambassador” and “partner” who will work with advertisers and be involved in marketing.
“It’s really an investment in the brand,” Chris Bevilacqua, a longtime sports media and technology executive and operator, said. “It’s important for the advertising side of the business. The presentation of a live sporting event is so critically important, and having the right talent is all part of that. The presentation is what gives it the big event feel.”
They satisfy the demands of Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer, who wants TV partners to only employ their best talent in front of and behind the camera.
They please the most important audience of all: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
During Amazon’s recent “NewFront” for advertisers, Goodell seemed tickled pink that the global giant was hiring the legendary Michaels, Herbstreit, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez for “Thursday Night Football.”
“The marketplace has become ultra-competitive. I’m sure there’s a level of pressure, be it understated or overstated, the networks get from Park Avenue,” said Lepselter, whose client Nate Burleson has exploded into a crossover star for CBS.
“The league’s perspective is: ‘This is the NFL, the premium of premiums, the Rolls Royce.’ You need to stay ultra-competitive and have a premium product on-air, week-in, week-out. They need to feel that what (the networks) are putting out there, branding-wise, fits with the Shield.”
Are They Worth The Money?
Some sports TV executives question the spending spree. Ex-ESPN boss John Skipper, for example, dismissed Brady as an “expensive trophy,” who won’t add viewers to Fox’s audience.
“I think he’ll probably be OK on games. It doesn’t really matter that much other than for pride and I guess he’ll shake advertisers’ hands,” said Skipper on Dan Le Betard’s podcast.
But a leading talent agent scoffs at naysayers. Critics like Skipper are not seeing the big picture, he said.
“It’s a joke. Those people are idiots. These networks are paying $2 billion a year for NFL rights. Who cares if they pay $18 million for a broadcaster? They’re the sauce. They already bought the steak.”