Two years ago, Tony Romo inadvertently transformed himself into a Corona-shilling agent of chaos, as his successful bid for a 10-year, $175 million extension with CBS prompted a clutch of veteran broadcasters to test their own value on the open market. Having served alongside Jim Nantz for all of three years, Romo parlayed his made-for-TV demeanor and uncanny ability to predict offensive outcomes into a historically lucrative booth assignment—one that prompted several veteran NFL broadcasters to begin making designs on their own imminent cash grabs.
The ensuing round of musical chairs made a few wealthy guys even wealthier, while all but dismantling the familiar trappings of recent-vintage televised football. Aikman and Joe Buck, his booth mate of 20 years’ standing, hopped from Fox to ESPN, where they’re calling the primetime action on Monday Night Football. Together, the duo will rake in some $167.5 million over the course of their five-year deal. Fox countered with a spectacular bit of future-proofing, inking Tom Brady to a Romo-dwarfing 10-year, $375 million pact that will kick in whenever the seven-time Super Bowl champ decides to hang up his cleats.
NBC for its part engaged in a little addition by subtraction, allowing Al Michaels’ Sunday Night Football contract to run out while cutting ties with Drew Brees. (The indefatigable Michaels is now hauling in $1 million per game at his new Amazon Prime digs alongside Kirk Herbstreit.) NBC had hoped to develop Brees as the heir apparent to SNF analyst Cris Collinsworth, but the experiment didn’t pan out. While Brees may have fumbled the snap, NBC couldn’t have scripted a more advantageous botched succession plan; with a combined salary of $22.5 million per season, Mike Tirico and Collinsworth will assume the mantle of the thriftiest NFL battery as soon as Brady clamps on the headset over at Fox.
Here’s where things take a turn for both varieties of funny, which is to say ha-ha and peculiar. Aside from the initial spasms of disorientation that greeted football fans at the top of the 2022 NFL season—after two decades of hearing them call games over the Sunday gravy, it’s still a little weird to experience Buck and Aikman in the meatball-free environs of Monday primetime—the various personnel changes have had no impact on the league’s TV ratings. Deliveries for the primary broadcast windows are generally flat versus the year-ago period, and the one showcase that has seen a significant uptick in overall viewership is staffed by a former car salesman and an analyst who’d been elevated to the varsity team after an 18-game stint on the JV squad.
Through Week 10, Fox’s much-ballyhooed “America’s Game of the Week” window is averaging 24.3 million viewers per broadcast, an 11% improvement compared to 21.9 million during the analogous period in 2021. Season-to-date, Fox currently has bragging rights to three of the top five most-watched NFL games, a roster which includes last Sunday’s league-leading Cowboys-Packers broadcast (29.2 million viewers) and a Week 3 showdown between the Packers and Bucs (26.4 million). That Fox has managed to scare up such massive numbers in a time when overall TV usage has fallen nearly 10% over the last year is remarkable; what’s perhaps less worth remarking upon is the fact that the network is serving up these deliveries while ex-Chevrolet sales associate Kevin Burkhardt and quick study Greg Olsen are at the helm.
If Burkhardt and Olsen aren’t as universally familiar as their predecessors, their relative anonymity hasn’t left anyone at Fox pining for a candlelit reunion with Buck and Aikman. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s kept tabs on sports media or merely endured one of our semiannual harangues about the iffy-ness of trying to establish causality when assessing the impact a broadcast crew has on overall TV deliveries. Since the halcyon days of the Pat Summerall/John Madden era, there’s been no tangible evidence to suggest a given booth’s composition has had a material impact on the size of the NFL TV audience. If Aaron Rodgers is playing football opposite Patrick Mahomes, you’re going to watch even if ALF and the ghosts of the two Darrins from Bewitched are calling the action.
If the reference to the long-defunct ABC sitcom is more dated than New England’s Pat the Patriot throwback unis—nothing conveys the numbing joylessness of the Steve Grogan epoch quite like a deserter from the Continental Army hiking a rugby ball—the twin Darrins phenomenon really cuts to the heart of the NFL’s booth issue. (Better still: non-issue.) In 1969, after having put in five seasons as the perennially flustered ad man Darrin Stephens, actor Dick York left the show. Although his replacement, Dick Sargent, looked nothing like the original Darrin, ABC basically proceeded as if no explanation was required, and America went along with the ruse. This is because the real star of the show was Elizabeth Montgomery, who had magical powers and wasn’t some vaguely unsavory Ad-land weasel. In the case of our modern-day NFL broadcasts, the football serves the Samantha Stephens function, and the booth guys are just so many Darrins.
Ask any Madison Avenue type, and he or she will tell you just the same. “The next time an advertiser wants to pull out of an NFL buy because of the broadcast crew will be the first time,” a national TV buyer told us over the summer, as the Brady-Fox news was breaking. “John Madden may have been the only guy who helped grow the game just by talking about it every week, but the year after he retired, the NFL ratings were up 9%.”
For all that, securing a battle-tested booth remains a matter of profound importance for the network suits, who tend to see the world through the lens of branding. If nothing else, a couple of big names can make for a hell of a lot of hubbub when the time comes to dazzle advertisers. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to watch someone who controls a $929 million TV budget all but hop up and down after meeting Terry Bradshaw at an upfront party, you’ll know what we’re getting at here. Booth personnel are ambassadors for your greater brand. They may not have any hand in making more (or fewer) consumers tune in every week, but a few minutes of idle chatter over shrimp cocktail can send the otherwise budget-minded pharma rep scrambling for the company checkbook.
More to the point, a pricey broadcast team simply comes with the territory. After investing $105 billion in an 11-year NFL rights extension, the league’s media partners are all but obliged to field luxury-model booths. You don’t buy a $30 million Rolls-Royce Boat Tail and then park it out in the street, where the neighborhood kids have their rock fights. Smarten up.
Again, for all the tumult leading into this season, it’s nearly impossible to use the TV ratings as a means to gauge the effectiveness of the various booth shakeups. CBS’s national window is up 2% to 22.9 million viewers, and the Nantz-Romo battery is the same as it ever was. (Talk about consistency; despite landing his broadcast windfall, Tony’s still manning the Corona Hotline.) The radically reconstituted ESPN booth is putting up numbers that are on par with the final season of Steve Levy/Brian Griese/Louis Riddick, and at NBC, Tirico’s deliveries are of a piece with Michaels’ year-ago marks.
The sheer staying power of the NFL’s steel-belted schedule is what’s keeping everything on an even keel, despite all the changes that have been made on the production side. The networks are on pace to book north of $4 billion in overall ad sales revenue, the NFL currently accounts for 74 of the 100 most-watched TV broadcasts of 2022, and America’s collective lust for football remains insatiable. At the same time, the biggest voices on the tube belong to a guy who used to sell hatchbacks down by the Jersey shore and another Garden Stater who only started calling games a year ago.
Here’s hoping Greg Olsen sticks around for a while. The guy who’s meant to replace him doesn’t seem to be itching for a career change; earlier this week, Brady declared himself the “Epcot Center of quarterbacks” before joking that his career 4-0 record in international games makes him a perfect fit for the CFL. He may want to workshop those one-liners for a bit before starting the TV gig.