Over the course of the spring broadcast shuffle, a frenzied period that saw veteran NFL voices swapping booths like Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich trading families back in 1973, Tom Brady managed to cheese off more New York media types than he did during the 20 years he spent beating up on the Jets in New England.
When word began circulating that the seven-time Super Bowl winner had inked a $375 million deal to join Fox as the network’s lead analyst, a sort of collective peevishness began to ferment online and on the airwaves, as lesser-compensated pros who’d put in years of heavy lifting bemoaned TB12’s obscene payday.
In what sounded for all the world like a superfan’s distressed post-game call to WEEI after Super Bowl XLII, working stiffs raged about the unfairness of it all. At the heart of all the fuming lay the assertion that Brady’s inexperience was incommensurate with his Scrooge McDuck salary, a charge that many observers found even more offensive by virtue of the fact that the quarterback had never demonstrated anything in the way of a human-type personality. (To his credit, the athlete with the most meticulously cultivated public image this side of Derek Jeter showed off a far-less buttoned-up version of himself during a celebratory maritime outing in which he nearly dispatched the Lombardi Trophy to the depths of Tampa’s Hillsborough River.)
As with all things related to unimaginable sums of loot—at the end of Brady’s 10-year deal, he’ll have enough Fox money to buy Raymond James Stadium and turn it into a petting zoo, with plenty left over to secure enough salad toppings to last the rest of his natural life—it’s probably worth noting that one man’s treasure does not in any way impact the contents of another’s bank account. Which is to say, it’s bad form to beef about money that isn’t yours.
The corollary to that statement is that it’s perfectly fine to complain when a certain worthy doesn’t collect a bag of cash, which leads to someone like a Mookie Betts decamping for Los Angeles. In other words, it’s OK to get all heated when a billionaire fails to retain the services of a generational talent, if only because fandom, by its very nature, is irrational.
Also, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Americans who have steam coming out of their earholes whenever sports-related payouts are in the wind have a weird tendency to overlook extravagance in other disciplines. If you’re going to be mad about sums of money that no one will ever offer you, be mad about Slash’s giant-snake budget. When Nicholas Cage blows $150 million on a dinosaur skull, a haunted castle and a couple of shrunken pygmy heads, even someone who’s digging under the sofa cushions for Top Ramen change will indulge in a bit of a chuckle.
That many Brady critics would suggest that the man has all the personality of a chicken pot pie is largely a function of his decades-long adherence to the robotic mirthlessness that is the Patriot Way, a cultish program built on a foundation of preemptive boringness and a dedication to winning that all but eliminates any inclination toward fun. But since leaving the red-brick chill of New England for the tropical climes of the Gulf of Mexico, Brady has reinvented himself as a sort of Good Time Charlie. The transformation goes well beyond the consumption of a few foamers and the devil-may-care handling of one of sports’ most iconic trophies. Brady’s never going to be as effortlessly entertaining as Peyton Manning, but neither will anyone else who talks about football for a living. Manning is a mutant from another dimension, and his natural ease in front of the camera is a rare commodity indeed.
Nor does Brady have to match the devil-may-care pyrotechnics of Tony Romo, whose enthusiasm and bone-deep knowledge of the game made him a hit from the moment he slid into the booth with Jim Nantz in 2017. (That Romo has enjoyed the inestimable benefit of working alongside Nantz is something that largely goes unsaid, but it’s unlikely that he would have caught on as quickly as he did if he were sitting alongside a C-team play-by-play vet.) CBS Sports took a massive gamble on the untested Romo, although it’s probably fair to say that Sean McManus’ bloodline—his father was the late, great Jim McKay—makes him uniquely qualified to assess broadcast talent.
McManus also put Romo through his paces well before the ex-Cowboy’s Colts-Rams debut on Sept. 10, 2017. Because while his gut told him Romo had all the tools to excel in a gig held by just four men in headsets (an unassuming cast of gents named Summerall, Brookshier, Madden and Simms), it’s best to prove out a hypothesis before you trot it out in front of 20 million people. Romo essentially just confirmed everything McManus thought he knew, and in three years’ time, the neophyte had performed his way into a 10-year, $175 million contract extension—a blockbuster deal that catalyzed this spring’s round of high-profile arrivals and departures.
More recently, NBC Sports launched a similar experiment with retired Saints QB Drew Brees, and while the new hire’s football smarts are unquestioned, his on-camera demeanor during the network’s coverage of Notre Dame home games made him less of a must-see talent than the 2017 version of Tony Romo. Things with Brees came to a head late last season, when NBC assigned him to work the Jan. 15 Raiders-Bengals AFC Wild Card Game.
While Brees was grouped alongside his Fighting Irish boothmate Mike Tirico, he fumbled the opportunity. Nothing egregious transpired, and with an average draw of 27.7 million viewers (which marked a 29% improvement versus NBC’s analogous broadcast in 2021), it’s not as if the somewhat lethargic Brees managed to scare off any viewers. But a series of bum reads and what amounts to a sort of disconnection from the game and the audience seemed to confirm earlier suspicions that Brees might not have what it takes to call big-time football, and once word got out that NBC was preparing to end its association with the Saints legend, it felt as if both parties had arrived at a mutual decision.
However things shake out with Brady, his presence in the booth won’t make much of a difference in terms of Fox’s NFL ratings deliveries and the rates it charges clients to advertise in its NFC-heavy roster. Such is the dirty little secret of sports broadcasting, which is why ex-ESPN capo John Skipper has characterized the Brady deal as a poor use of resources. It doesn’t matter who’s in the booth or the studio, which is something that Skipper’s predecessors at the Worldwide Leader came to learn back when then-executive vice president Mark Shapiro decided to hire Rush Limbaugh as a hired hand on Sunday Night Countdown. The thinking was that Limbaugh would naturally draw a huge chunk of his 20 million viewers to the show. He didn’t. The radio titan lasted all of four weeks, although his ouster had nothing to with how the Nielsen dials were swinging.
Any Madison Avenue exec will tell you the same. “The next time a client wants to pull out of an NFL buy because of the broadcast crew will be the first time,” said one national TV buyer. “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%.”
Brady could prove to be a bust, but the notion that Fox effectively chased off Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to secure the services of Tom Brady is a bit undercooked. Nor does anyone at Fox expect to extract even more cash from advertisers once Brady makes his transition from the gridiron to the broadcast booth. Speaking of the ad side of the business, perhaps the most misguided read on the Brady payday is that advertisers will have to start raising their prices to balance out the inevitable Touchdown Tommy Tariff.
Like most hot takes, this would be a pretty smart interpretation of the way TV gets bought and sold, if it weren’t so hopelessly dumb.