ESPN spent last year building up Peyton and Eli Manning as the curators of a loose, bar-talk like show meant as an alternative to its traditional Monday Night Football. Now, Variety reports, the Disney-backed sports giant is focusing on the main event.
ESPN has signed the two main figures behind Fox Sports’ football presentations, Troy Aikman and Joe Buck, in a bid to strengthen the main MNF booth. The deal, which has been anticipated for several days, will put two of sports’ most-watched gameday figures at the helm of ESPN’s signature offering.
“When you have the opportunity to bring in the iconic, longest-running NFL broadcasting duo, you take it, especially at a time when we are on the cusp of a new era in our expanding relationship with the NFL,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and sports content for Disney, in a statement. “The NFL continues to ascend, and we now have more games than ever before, providing additional opportunities for Joe, Troy and our deep roster of commentators.”
Signing the pair, who have worked together for two decades and called six Super Bowls—only the legendary team of Pat Summerall and John Madden has called more—illustrates the new pressures facing some of the most traditional broadcasters of sports. Disney, NBCUniversal, Fox and Paramount Global have all agreed to substantial hikes in the licensing fees they will pay to the National Football League under a new 11-year pact that will keep the bulk of professional-football telecasts under the purview of the big traditional TV broadcasters. As part of its own deal, Disney gets to telecast an additional Monday-night game on ABC and a new international game on ESPN Plus, ESPN’s streaming-video service. It will also get a new crack at broadcasting the Super Bowl in 2026.
Aikman had come to the end of his contract with Fox Sports, according to people familiar with the matter, but Buck, who has been with Fox Sports for years calling both football and baseball, still had time left, these people said. As a courtesy for his long employment, Fox gave him a chance to leave, these people said. Doing so, however, opens a major hole in Fox’s sports talent lineup. But it may also help its parent company, Fox Corp., trim back some costs as it ponies up new dollars for sports rights.
Fox recently ceded control of Thursday Night Football to Amazon, according to recent remarks by Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, in the belief that its rights to Sunday games were more meaningful to its stations and affiliates who carry Fox Broadcasting—and therefore more integral to the retransmission fees the company can seek.
Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen are two Fox Sports figures who might be tapped to replace the departing duo, according to some of these people.
Indeed, Aikman and Buck head to ESPN amid a flurry of potential talent changes for major football broadcasts. If negotiations are completed, NBC Sports’ Al Michaels could be headed to Amazon to call Thursday Night Football, a move that would open up a sport for Mike Tirico at NBC’s own Sunday Night Football. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit could also join Amazon, according to people familiar with the matter.
ESPN has been tinkering with Monday Night Football for years, never quite satisfied with the performance of the talent lineup it has assembled for the games since Tirico departed in 2016. ESPN has tried everything in the interim. Executives lined up a sideline vehicle for analyst Booger McFarland that became known as “The Boogermobile,” and was quickly scrapped. ESPN hired Dallas Cowboys player Jason Whitten, and even made a bid for CBS star announcer Tony Romo when his contact was about to lapse. Nothing seemed to score in the way ESPN management liked.
Buck and Aikman will replace the trio of Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick, who have gamely held the MNF reins even as ESPN tested out “mega-casts” of game across multiple networks and boosted the Mannings’ less formal confab on ESPN2. Lisa Salters, the longtime sideline reporter, will stay with the broadcast. Aikman and Buck will start on Sept. 12, the same night as the Mannings’ kick off their second season.