Wednesday September 27, 2023

What Does A Network Do When Its NFL Announcers Get Sick?

  • NBC faced a problem as visibly sick Cris Collinsworth struggled through “Sunday Night Football.”
  • Networks need contingency plans post-COVID if they need to pull announcers off the air.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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It’s a sports TV network’s worst nightmare: What do you do when the million-dollar face of your NFL coverage loses their voice?  

NBC Sports was faced with that situation when a visibly tired, possibly ill, Cris Collinsworth called the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys Sunday night. 

From the moment he appeared on-screen next to play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico, viewers could tell there was something wrong with the “Sunday Night Football” analyst. 

Collinsworth’s voice was raspy, his eyes were red, his energy was down. He gutted it out. But his frog-like croaking led many viewers to call for NBC producers to hustle some hot tea and honey to the broadcast booth at AT&T Stadium.

“We were confident Cris would be able to call the game up to his and our high standards,” an NBC spokesman told Front Office Sports Monday.

On the air, Collinsworth reassured viewers he felt great. But Tirico admitted his partner was “playing hurt,” placing the blame on a red-eye flight and the hectic schedule of calling two big games in four days.

Some viewers were less charitable on Twitter. Some joked he sounded like he was coming off a bender in Las Vegas. Others that he’d just smoked a pack of Marlboro Reds. “This is awful and pathetic…Get him off the air,” tweeted one viewer.

NBC declined to comment on its contingency plans if Collinsworth completely lost his voice Sunday night. But this is an issue networks have had to seriously consider since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Over the past couple of years, networks have thrown roughly $1 billion in new contracts at their star NFL analysts and announcers. They better have contingency plans if they need to go to the bullpen.  

Unless it’s the Super Bowl or NFL Playoffs, Collinsworth and Tirico, ESPN’s Troy Aikman and Joe Buck, and CBS Sports’ Tony Romo and Jim Nantz generally don’t have understudies waiting in the wings and ready to go.

If somebody goes down, their replacements depend on timing and logistics. 

Say ESPN knew in advance that Aikman or Buck was sick and couldn’t call “Monday Night Football.” 

The network would likely hustle its second “Monday Night Football” announce crew of Steve Levy, Louis Riddick, and Dan Orlovsky on the first plane to Seattle for tonight’s Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos game.   

Or the Worldwide Leader in Sports could repeat what it did when Kirk Herbstreit tested positive for COVID in late 2020. 

ESPN constructed a home studio for its top college football analyst — and Herbstreit called the College Football Playoff Semifinal between Ohio State and Clemson from his basement. 

But what would ESPN do if Aikman or Buck decided they couldn’t go only hours or minutes before airtime tonight? In that case, ESPN would likely turn to the stars of its “Monday Night Countdown” pregame show, who will be on-site in Seattle. 

Booger McFarland, for example, previously served as a game analyst on “Monday Night Football.” He could easily slide into Aikman’s chair, while host Suzy Kolber, who has covered the NFL for nearly 30 years, could ably fill in for Buck.

NBC won’t say so, but if Collinsworth had completely lost his voice Sunday night, it likely would have turned to one of the stars of its “Football Night in America” pregame show who were on-site, like Jac Collinsworth or Rodney Harrison.

The younger Collinsworth (who sounds like his father) took over as play-by-play announcer on NBC’s Notre Dame coverage this weekend. 

Harrison has never been shy about giving his opinions. If the older Collinsworth was out, it probably would have been Harrison in the analyst chair. Either way, Cris Collinsworth will probably be brining some cough drops to his next game telecast.

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