One of Disney’s most respected and talented sports voices could test free-agent waters in early 2023.
Chris Fowler’s current contract with ESPN expires next year, said sources. The 60-year-old host and commentator is finishing up a nine-year contract extension that was announced in March 2014.
Fowler has called ESPN’s biggest college football and Grand Slam tennis events, including the College Football National Championship, ABC’s “Saturday Night Football,” the U.S. Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon.
In January, Fowler and partner Kirk Herbstreit called their eighth CFP National Championship together. The popular duo are now in their 27th season calling college football for ABC/ESPN. They’ve even called select NFL games together.
Fowler did not return several messages seeking comment. ESPN declined to comment.
It would be a major surprise if Fowler left ESPN. He’s practically a lifer, joining the network in July 1986. Fowler wants to stay at ESPN, and ESPN management wants to retain him, said sources.
But ESPN and the TV world have changed since 2014.
With the exception of a few highly paid talents like Troy Aikman ($18 million a year) and Joe Buck ($15 million) of “Monday Night Football,” and Stephen A. Smith ($12 million) of “First Take,” ESPN is playing hardball in talent negotiations.
The question now: Will ESPN pay up to retain the 35-year veteran? Or could Fox Sports swoop in to steal Fowler from ESPN the way it did with Tom Rinaldi in January 2021?
Fox is eyeing Fowler, the former longtime host of “College GameDay,” as a possible host of its “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show, said sources. With Fox controlling the top Big Ten Conference media package, Fowler could be a big hire moving forward.
Fox also declined to comment.
During an appearance on Richard Deitsch’s “Sports Media” podcast, ESPN whisperer James Andrew Miller said he believes Fowler’s contract is up next year.
The negotiations could be an indicator on how a more tight-fisted ESPN will handle talent talks moving forward, said the author of “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN.”
“I think Fowler will be a really interesting case study to follow. Because he’s not at the crazy 15-plus [million] that Aikman and Buck are. He’s not in Stephen A. territory. But he’s a guy who makes a really, really good living, and deserves to make a good living. And let’s see what ESPN’s appetite for keeping Fowler is,” said Miller.
“There won’t be anybody at ESPN who will say, ‘We don’t want to keep Chris Fowler.’ But are there going to be people who are going to be, dare I say, audacious enough to say, ‘We only want to keep Chris Fowler at a certain price’? To me that sounds crazy. But let’s see how far this discipline of theirs extends. … They could cross their hands and say, ‘Where else are you going to get tennis? We basically own tennis.’”
The staggering contracts offered by chairman Jimmy Pitaro to lure Aikman and Buck from Fox earlier this year indicated Disney’s ESPN is still willing to spend.
But the Worldwide Leader in Sports has also seen plenty of top talents walk out the door, including Dan Le Batard, Mike Golic Sr. and Mike Golic Jr., Jemele Hill, Kenny Mayne, Josina Anderson, Trey Wingo, Maria Taylor, Matthew Berry and Michelle Beadle. Some left for better offers. Others like Mayne split because ESPN wanted them to take deep pay cuts.
Rinadli basically “doubled his salary” by jumping to Fox from ESPN, Miller said. But positive stories like that are increasingly few and far between.
“It’s a very tricky situation. I hope ESPN does the right thing. Chris deserves it,” Miller said. “But if you really want to put a specific case study on it, I think that’s one to watch.”