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Get ready for a battle royale over Tony Romo between ESPN and CBS Sports.
The TV sports bidding war for Romo could reach heights not seen since the heyday of John Madden, said sources. CBS is going to be very aggressive in trying to retain the free agent, who has emerged as one of the best NFL game analysts on TV, said sources.
CBS “would be crazy” not to try to keep Romo away from the rival ESPN, according to James Andrew Miller, the podcaster and author of Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN.
“By all indications, [CBS is] eager to stay in the NFL and they’d have to be taking some really weird drugs not to want Tony to stay in the booth,” Miller said. “It’s going to be one of those crazy auctions where you see a lot of money thrown around. Tony will have to weigh a variety of competing factors.”
With its “Monday Night Football” package up after the 2021 season, ESPN is prepared to make Romo the highest-paid sportscaster in history, with a seven-year deal worth $10 million to $14 million annually, said sources.
The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback currently makes $4 million a year under the third and final year of his rookie broadcasting contract with CBS. The most Romo ever made during his playing career was $8.5 million per season, according to Spotrac. He pocketed $127.4 million over his 14-year NFL playing career.
On TV, Troy Aikman of Fox Sports currently makes about $7.5 million. Before returning to the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, Jon Gruden made over $6 million a year to call “Monday Night Football” at ESPN. At his peak in 1993, Madden made $8 million, according to Bryan Curtis of The Ringer.
Signing the 39-year old Romo would instantly boost ESPN credibility with the league, said sources. The network’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth has struggled for two consecutive seasons with Booger McFarland and Jason Witten in the analyst chair. With Romo behind the microphone, ESPN’s booth could potentially go from worst to first.
Given Romo’s close relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, sources said he could also be a factor in ESPN potentially scoring one of the higher-rated Sunday afternoon/Sunday night NFL packages away from rival CBS, Fox Sports, and NBC Sports after the 2022 season. Not to mention helping ESPN finally land a Super Bowl.
ESPN and CBS declined to comment for this story. Romo’s reps could not be reached.
CBS is not going to roll over and let Romo leave, said sources. CBS has the right to match any offer. The network will likely argue that Romo’s successful on-air partnership with play-by-by partner Jim Nantz is unique.
Then there’s the chance to call the Super Bowl. Romo and Nantz already called the New England Patriots’ win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53. Along with lead sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson, they’re on deck to call Super Bowl 55 in 2021.
As a cable rather than a broadcast network, ESPN has never had a Super Bowl, and there’s no guarantee it will get one, even though the network would likely argue that sister Disney network ABC can broadcast the game to the widest possible audience the same way it does the NBA Finals.
As Miller noted: “At some point, CBS might think these kinds of dollars are too crazy. But they can also say to themselves and say to Tony, ‘Look, we think we have a better product than ESPN] does. We have a better schedule than they do. You know us, you know who we are, you know how much we value you. There’s a lot of uncertainties here. So we’re going to go up to X amount – but we’re not going to go Y. If you want to make this all about money, that’s going to be too bad.'”
That could be an effective argument. Loyalty is important to Romo. He knows CBS Sports bosses Sean McManus and David Berson took a chance installing the TV rookie as their lead game analyst in 2017. Romo’s also tight with CBS’ lead NFL game producer Jim Rikhoff, who’s worked with him since the jump.
“I love working for CBS,” Romo told Front Office Sports during the preseason.
When it comes to the billions of dollars that networks like CBS will pledge to the NFL during the next round of TV negotiations, $10 million to $14 million a year is not unreasonable for a breakout star like Romo, according to Patrick Crakes, the former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant.
“They have to keep him. I mean what’s $14 million, or whatever, a year to have an elite level talent to carry the brand flag for your $2 billion annual investment in NFL games?” asked Crakes. “If you’re going to invest the house in the NFL, then the millions that you pay to keep a unique generational talent like Romo in-house is just marketing. As to who could replace him, he’s not replaceable. So you just do the best you can and probably pivot to the former, or soon to be former, NFL player that your production team thinks has the most upside potential AND is a good fit with Nantz.”
Never forget the Nantz factor, warned another TV executive. Besides bonding with Romo over football and golf, CBS’ No. 1 announcer has served as a perfect mentor/partner over the past three seasons.
“(Romo) should stay with CBS. Nantz is under-rated,” said another TV executive. “He sets up Romo so well. He applauds the right call. The setup man is as important as the guy who delivers the punch lines.”
One possible Plan B for CBS could be New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Adam Schefter, ESPN’s NFL Insider, wrote that “one non-ESPN network” has already called the 40-year old Brees about transitioning to TV. Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers is also a candidate for the broadcast booth if he retires.
The final decision may come down to whether CBS is willing to match an extraordinarily generous offer from ESPN.
One TV executive doubts CBS would match a $10 million to $14 million annual offer from ESPN. CBS just walked away from negotiations with the SEC Conference when the bidding against Disney’s ESPN/ABC got prohibitive. Instead, he thinks CBS will bid up to $8 million for Romo – but no higher.
“CBS will not lose a single rating point if Tony Romo goes off to ESPN. On the other hand, ESPN would benefit significantly from having Tony. ESPN has lost some credibility with its current Monday Night lineup. I think ESPN, frankly, can afford to pay Tony whatever they choose. CBS, on the other hand, can’t do that. And frankly, I don’t think they will.”