NFL free agency is underway. And not just for the players. In recent weeks, Joe Buck (five years, $75 million, ESPN), Troy Aikman (five years, $90 million, ESPN) and Al Michaels (three years, $30 million, Amazon) have all signed lucrative deals with new employers. But if the “tectonic shift” in talent is unlikely to drive an “outsized impact” on fall ratings (as Sportico’s Anthony Crupi wrote), then it is reasonable to wonder why rights holders would commit eight figures annually to a broadcaster. Former Turner Sports president David Levy explained that having “great talent” in the booth can enhance the quality of a television broadcast, as well as the brand’s image. Of course, Levy built Turner Sports’ popular NBA coverage around the likes of Marv Albert, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal.
JWS’ Take: Crupi is not alone in suggesting the recent talent signings are unlikely to move the ratings needle. Former ESPN president John Skipper recently told Dan Le Batard that he “never saw a scintilla of evidence that the people in the booth change the ratings even by a smidgen.” The two teams on the field, how competitive the game is and how long it remains competitive are what dictate TV ratings.
Still, having brand name announcers on a broadcast can help to give it a big-time feel. “It creates a conceptual advantage,” Levy said, one fans buy into and that advertisers may be willing to pay more for.
As Chris Bevilacqua (co-founder, Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures) explained, spending on elite broadcast talent is really not about driving ratings and revenue for the network. It is largely an investment in the brand.
Skipper told Le Batard it is also, in part, about “internal pride” for networks. ESPN employed a lightly regarded Monday Night Football booth last season (Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick). In fact, critics would argue that has been the case since the network had Mike Tirico and John Gruden calling games in 2015. It is likely the network wanted more prominent on-air talent tied to a property it sees as uniquely valuable.
It is possible the moves for Aikman and Buck were also made to appease the league. ESPN received a massive 10-year rights extension that gives the network 35% more games, scheduling flexibility with MNF, exclusive national games for ESPN+ and brings ABC into the Super Bowl rotation in 2026 and ’30. Industry insiders believe the league may have wanted the network to upgrade its broadcast talent in exchange for that commitment. An NFL spokesperson said the league does not dictate specific announcers during contract negotiations with any network, but that it “expects each partner to present NFL games with the highest quality production that fans want and deserve.”
Tony Romo became the first broadcaster to earn eight figures annually when he signed a 10-year deal reportedly worth up to $180 million with CBS in 2020. The tie-up let the NFL know CBS was ready to invest heavily in its product and that the network was serious about retaining league broadcast rights (which it has since renewed). Romo was able to command such strong terms because there was competition for his services. CBS Sports declined to comment on the deal.
Romo’s CBS contract reset the bar for elite NFL broadcasters. But even the best NBA, NHL or MLB broadcasters are unlikely to sign contracts with an eight figure AAV. “The NFL is a different animal because it [serves as] the big tent” for these networks, Bevilacqua said. These games “ripple through all of [the network’s] various ways of monetization, reach and engagement; plus they create promotional value for all of their other programming.”
That said, some downstream effect is likely to be felt within the other major sports leagues, with agents using the Buck, Aikman and Michaels deals as data points for comparison in negotiations for their clients.
In addition to paying Buck and Aikman $167.5 million over the next five years, ESPN has a separate deal with Omaha Productions to put forth a “ManningCast” for Monday Night Football games through the ’24 season. Bevilacqua believes it makes “total sense,” even if it seems as if this would splinter the audience and undermine the big-dollar guys in the main booth. He says there is plenty of room under the NFL tent to give fans a more personalized viewing experience (more on that subject next week).
While there may be room, that does not mean sufficient demand exists for it. Multicasts (like ESPN does for the CFP Championship Game) tend to drive minimal incremental viewership, and the overwhelming majority of fans (think: ~97%) prefer the main broadcast. Networks continue to do multicasts because it allows them to include additional sponsors in the event, and at least in ESPN’s case, prevents the company from counter-programming itself. The ManningCast drew between 12%-15% of the total MNF audience for games last season.
While eight figures is undoubtedly an astronomical amount for talent in the booth (at least relative to historical data), it is a small fraction of the amount networks spend to carry NFL games. Remember, ESPN/ABC pays $2.7 billion/year for the NFL broadcast rights that include Monday Night Football. “Then they have to spend money to produce and come up with the presentation of [the games]. Then they have to market it,” Bevilacqua reminded. Even at $15 million/year, Buck and Aikman’s salaries each represent roughly one-half of 1% of the company’s NFL spend.
On Monday, the New York Post reported that Kevin Burkhardt will replace Buck as the network’s No. 1 play-by-play broadcaster. The new booth will not be as acclaimed as the one it is replacing. But the network is confident that the changes it makes will not result in any drop-off in quality.
(This column has been updated in the second-to-last paragraph to clarify that ESPN/ABC’s NFL rights package payment is for all of its NFL offerings and not just Monday Night Football.)