The NFL’s highest-priced pickups this offseason weren’t all laser-armed quarterbacks, explosive edge rushers or dynamic receivers.
Some of the sport’s signature voices have landed more lucrative television contracts than all but the NFL’s most well-paid players.
With newcomer Amazon needing to make a splash after acquiring the rights to “Thursday Night Football” and ESPN eager to add badly needed star power to its Monday night booth, two deep-pocketed suitors accelerated the competition to acquire top broadcast talent. The NFL’s established play-by-play voices and color analysts took advantage, pitting one network against another when their contracts expired.
CBS reset the market two years ago when it shelled out a record-setting $180 million over 10 years to retain rising star Tony Romo as its lead NFL analyst. ESPN responded this spring by ransacking Fox’s top duo, snatching Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to revive the big-game aura of “Monday Night Football.” In March, newcomer Amazon also spent lavishly to pair Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit, bringing instant credibility to its Thursday night broadcasts.
The multi-network bidding war culminated Tuesday when Fox Sports announced that Tom Brady will become its lead NFL analyst when he’s done playing. Fox did not disclose terms of Brady’s deal, but the New York Post reported that the seven-time Super Bowl champion will receive $375 million over 10 years, the richest contract in sports broadcasting history — and more than Brady will have earned via his 23 seasons in the league.
The industry-wide spending spree raises some obvious questions: Why are networks suddenly comfortable investing tens of millions of dollars per year on their top NFL announcing teams? What’s the justification when there is little indication big-name broadcasters can deliver higher ratings?
In a March appearance on Dan Le Batard’s podcast, former ESPN president John Skipper said that he “never saw a scintilla of evidence that the people in the booth change the ratings even by a smidgeon.” Former TV executives who spoke to Yahoo Sports largely agreed, arguing that the quality of a matchup is what determines the size of an audience and that broadcasters can only elevate or undermine the viewing experience.
Former CBS Sports vice president of programming Jay Rosenstein pointed to the 2021 Super Bowl’s record low ratings as proof that broadcasters can only do so much. Jim Nantz is among the most highly regarded play-by-play voices in sports. Romo had become a sensation because of his infectious enthusiasm and gift for predicting plays. And yet viewership plummeted as Tampa Bay pulled away from Kansas City inside a largely empty stadium.
“If the game is not great, there’s nothing an announcer can do,” Rosenstein told Yahoo Sports.
The lone exception that Rosenstein points to is the charming, charismatic John Madden during his heyday alongside Pat Summerall. In those days, Madden’s bottomless well of colorful tales and funny quips could sometimes retain viewers who might otherwise have flipped away from a dud of a game.
“I don’t see anyone right now who can do that,” Rosenstein said. “Announcers just don’t move the needle like that very often.”
So where does an $18-million-a-year color analyst deliver value if it’s not in ratings? John Entz, Fox Sports’ president of production from 2012-2019, said, “I don’t think you can go line by line, item by item and say here’s where we’re going to go up in sales, here’s where we’re going to go up in ratings, here’s where we’re going to go up in every other metric.” But Entz does see value in a top-tier NFL broadcast crew in areas that are murkier and harder to quantify.
When the NFL divvies up marquee games among its broadcast partners, Entz says the league often rewards networks for investing in a highly regarded broadcast crew. That’s why, when the 2022 schedule is unveiled Thursday evening, Entz expects ESPN to receive a more appealing “Monday Night Football” slate with Aikman and Buck behind the mic than last year with the lesser-known, lesser-paid trio of Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Entz says, “that the NFL rewards them for having an ‘A’ product now.”
Face-to-face meetings with potential advertisers, Entz and other experts say, is another area where having a celebrity color analyst could pay off. Fox Sports referred to Brady as a “brand ambassador” in its announcement, suggesting that he will be involved in a range of client and promotional activities.
Major advertisers are going to sit up a little straighter in their seats at an Upfront presentation if Brady walks on stage. And Fox might be able to entice corporations to buy advertising airtime more easily if it’s Brady delivering the closing pitch over a Michelin-star dinner or on a golf course.
“The opportunity to have a super celebrity like Brady do meet-and-greets is important because it can help solidify a deal,” Rosenstein said. “Does it turn a $10 million buy into a $20 million buy? No, but there’s still value in his presence.”
Having a top-tier broadcast crew also matters to a network because it’s essential to delivering the best possible product to viewers. Networks are paying more than $2 billion per year for the right to air 18-plus weeks of NFL games. So to former Fox Sports executive and current media consultant Patrick Crakes, “It makes complete sense for networks to make big investments in the presentation of that product.”
When he started at Fox Sports in the mid-1990s, Crakes remembers a focus group respondent saying, “When you hear Pat Summerall’s voice, that’s football.” Years later, after Buck and Aikman were entrenched as Fox’s top NFL broadcast duo, Crakes recalls another focus group attendee explaining, “When Joe and Troy are there, you know it’s a big game.”
“That,” says Crakes, “is the feeling you want people to get. That is what I was always looking for.”
ESPN purchased that when it landed Buck and Aikman a couple months ago. Amazon acquired that by hiring Michaels as the voice of “Thursday Night Football.” Time will tell if Brady can provide the same for Fox.
In 1995, NBC hired freshly retired Joe Montana to join its NFL studio team. The four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback was so uncomfortable in his new role that he barely survived one season before fleeing broadcasting for good.
Experts say that Brady has the potential to do better if he attacks his post-retirement role with the same work ethic that he displayed throughout his playing career. That means carving out time to prepare for upcoming games, to do mock broadcasts and to build rapport with future play-by-play partner Kevin Burkhardt.
In addition to his unparalleled credibility and star power, Brady showcased self-deprecating humor and surprising candor last October during a 13-minute appearance on ESPN’s ManningCast. Fox is betting big — unfathomably big — that he’ll be able to build on that behind a microphone whenever he finally retires.
“For a guy like Tom Brady, the biggest fish out there, sometimes you have to overpay,” Entz said. “Sometimes you have to take a big swing, and that’s as big a swing as you can take.”