This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The NFL season had been over for two months, but Brandon Copeland, a veteran linebacker who played for the Detroit Lions and New York Jets, was still in “game mode”—just not on the field.
Copeland was in a broadcast booth inside the NFL’s Los Angeles media hub with CBS Sports and NBC Sports broadcaster Noah Eagle, calling a game while the sounds of a stadium crowd filled his earpiece.
The game was not live, of course; it was as “realistic of a facsimile of what it’s like to do it that we can provide,” says NFL Network senior coordinating producer Chris Weerts. This test run was an opportunity for Copeland to see if a job in the broadcast booth might be in his future.
“I guess the analogy would be a preseason game because we’re not live on TV, but we’re getting those game reps, right?” Copeland tells THR from the league’s West Coast campus next to SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
Copeland, now a free agent, was in the midst of what he says was akin to “training camp.” He was one of 24 players selected by the NFL to participate in its 2023 Broadcast and Media Boot Camp, a three-day workshop where the league helps players interested in TV, radio, podcasts or other media get a chance to hone their skills—and where the NFL’s media partners can discover the next generation of talent at a time when there is more football programming than ever. The league now plays 17-game regular seasons and has long-term TV deals with CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN/ABC and Amazon, plus its own NFL Network. When you factor in radio broadcasts and the growing ecosystem of football podcasts, the game’s media presence has never been bigger—and the NFL wants to make sure the field-to-studio pipeline is a robust one.
That’s where the boot camp comes in.
Tracy Perlman, the NFL’s senior vp player operations, says the 15-year-old program has become a competitive, application-only endeavor. The league now receives more than 100 requests from current and former players, and only about 25 of them are accepted.
“This is really a player engagement-driven program to ensure that a player’s transition out of the game is a little bit easier,” Perlman says. “So many guys are interested in ‘How can I stay in football?’ ‘I think I’d be good on TV, but I’m not really sure.’ So this gives them the opportunity to learn about it and understand the commitment it takes, and it gives them the reps to figure out, ‘Am I good at this or not?’”
The boot camp has a track record of success: Look no further than CBS Mornings, where Nate Burleson (a 2012 participant) is now a co-host alongside Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil.
Or Jason McCourty, who played for the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots and participated in last year’s boot camp, where he was frequently partnered with former Seattle Seahawks star Richard Sherman. Now Sherman is on Amazon’s Thursday Night Football studio team and McCourty is calling the Thursday games for radio while also appearing on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football.
Says McCourty, “I think the seeds were planted there, and you start to have conversations and build relationships with important people that make those decisions.”
Adds Weerts, underscoring the value of the boot camp to the league’s media partners, “All the broadcast partners reach out when they get back to their home base, ‘Hey, can I get the links of what [the players] did?’” Executives don’t always know when a broadcast job will open, but they do keep tabs on their favorites.
Before they get their reps in, the participants are briefed. The league organizes panel discussions and presentations to give practical advice and media training from such TV hosts as Rich Eisen and players turned broadcasters like Kurt Warner. The topics range from the personal experiences of the broadcasters to best practices in the studio. And there are breakout sessions on how to be an analyst or call a game for radio led by producers including Fred Gaudelli (Sunday Night Football, Thursday Night Football) and Drew Kaliski (CBS’ The NFL Today).
“Learning about the details and the art form of communicating is something I’ve never done professionally—to learn about your eyeline, your stage presence, your body language, your energy, the pitch and tonality of your voice,” Copeland says.
Adds Denver Broncos fullback Mike Burton, “You’re speaking to America, so you’ve got to explain what you mean and mean what you are saying.”
Perlman says it’s clear participants absorb every detail about what it takes to become a broadcaster: “I’ve never seen guys take as many notes as when I was watching them. I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re filling up notebooks.’“
But learning “in theory” isn’t enough. All of the players THR spoke with say they craved hands-on experience and the opportunity to put their skills to the test. As Sandy Nunez, vp talent management at NFL Media, says, “These are players who are used to being coached. They’re used to being told where they didn’t quite hit the mark.”
With that desire for feedback in mind, day three of the camp sees the players step into the studio to run their mock games—for TV and radio—as well as co-host podcasts and sit in on a simulation of an NFL Network show. Afterward, the producers and mentors emerge with notes.
“There’s a laundry list of things that you need to work on if you want to take this seriously,” McCourty recalls. “I think, as a former player, that’s what we crave, being able to have someone tell you, ‘Hey, you aren’t amazing. You did a good job, but these are the things you need to do.’ That’s what we do our entire careers—we come and watch the film and your coach tells you everything you need to improve.”
The players also say the camp gives them a clear-eyed view of what it takes to make it in the booth, whether they were an All Pro or spent most of their career on the practice squad. Star broadcasters can make $10 million to $15 million a year.
“One thing I took away from it is that, you can be a Hall of Fame quarterback with two Super Bowls like Kurt Warner, or you could not have played the sport like Rich Eisen,” Burton says. “There’s different paths to get here. But if you set your mind to it and you’re passionate about it, there are ways to get into this business.”
Fundamentally, when players switch from playing in the NFL to covering the NFL, their roles change. They no longer are playing the game; they are storytellers explaining the game.
“This experience gives you a new appreciation for the people who are commenting on our games,” Copeland says. “As a player, sometimes you’re taught to avoid the media, right? But now you realize the media is just doing their best to tell the story as best as they can, as clearly and as concisely as they can.”