Broadcasters don’t affect whether we watch NFL games. Broadcasters only affect the volume at which we listen to them.
That’s my working theory, anyway, after more than a decade of covering sports media and many more decades (fandom established: 1978, or Horace Ivory’s breakthrough year) as one of millions upon millions of avid NFL enjoyers in the United States.
Oh, sure, there are some broadcasters who enhance the experience of watching a sporting event. Al Michaels’s voice is confirmation enough that what you’re watching matters, and Joe Buck is awfully close to that stratosphere. Go ahead and include Jim Nantz if you’re into azaleas.
I think I might agree to let Roger Goodell flex his ego and pilfer another draft pick from the Patriots if, in exchange, we could hear Pat Summerall and John Madden call a game at the peak of their powers one more time.
But if a particular NFL matchup is interesting or there’s a rooting interest in one of the teams, the broadcasters are not going to prevent fans from tuning in. You’ll watch, you absolutely will, even if you have to liberally deploy the mute button.
Save for maybe Tony Romo at the advent of his Nostradamus play-predicting powers in 2017, there are exactly zero analysts on conventional NFL broadcasts who are going to persuade viewers to tune in for the sake of hearing what they have to say. (ESPN’s appealing “ManningCast” is a different beast, and one that gets a small fraction of the standard “MNF” audience.)
Madden is the only one in my lifetime who had that drawing power, and because of his stature, no matter which network he was working for, he almost always had a compelling game to call anyway. He announced his retirement from the broadcast booth in April 2009. No one, not even Romo in his refreshing first season, has been a must-listen since.
I bring all of this up because it’s somewhat perplexing why these NFL broadcast-rights partners are throwing seven- and eight-figure annual salaries at color analysts who for the most part do not move the needle, if they have any experience at all.
I mean, I get the calculations of why they’re doing it: They have the cash to burn, and they want the early buzz that comes with a marquee name.
But this is accelerating well past silly money. Amazon reportedly offered Rams coach Sean McVay a five-year deal in the range of $100 million to join its Thursday night broadcast booth. He’s decent in those Campbell’s Soup commercials, but we have no clue whether he’d be any good in the broadcast booth. The same goes for two other names coveted by NFL broadcasting executives: former Saints coach Sean Payton and, of course, Tom Brady.
The fixation on former coaches and quarterbacks is also beyond uninspired. It should not go unnoticed that probably the most appealing group of commentators on any NFL program anywhere — ESPN’s “NFL Live” crew that includes, among others, Laura Rutledge, Marcus Spears, Mina Kimes, Ryan Clark, and Dan Orlovsky — is also the most diverse.
One would think these networks eager to spend stacks of cash on super-famous but unproven analysts would remember how television seemed to blunt all of Joe Montana’s charisma during his nine-game stint as a studio analyst for NBC in 1995, or how unremarkable Bill Walsh was as a color analyst (despite being paired with the great Dick Enberg) between his coaching stints with the 49ers and Stanford.
There is a more recent cautionary tale: Drew Brees. When he retired after the 2020 season after a decorated 20-year career with the Chargers and Saints, NBC and ESPN both pursued him. He chose NBC, turning down $6 million a year from ESPN (his NBC salary has not been disclosed). NBC primarily used him in the studio on “Sunday Night Football,” bumping a far superior analyst, Rodney Harrison, to on-site coverage.
But Brees did slide into the booth for a couple of games alongside Mike Tirico, a Bills-Saints game on Thanksgiving, and the Bengals-Raiders matchup in the AFC wild-card round. It did not go well, particularly the latter game, in which Brees was reluctant to offer any criticism, and did not acknowledge an inadvertent whistle until well after the fact on a play that led to a Bengals touchdown. Maybe he’ll improve. But what’s the impetus? He already has the paycheck and prominence of a sure thing.
It’s wild to look at Hall of Famer Troy Aikman’s career earnings ($27.4 million in salary, another $28.1 million in bonuses, per Sportrac) in his 12 seasons for the Cowboys and compare it with what he’ll make — a little more than $90 million over five years — in his pending “Monday Night Football” deal with ESPN.
But Aikman, who has been the No. 1 analyst for Fox for 20 years, is at least a known commodity, and one who has grown more critical and candid as the years have passed. For my money — and thank goodness this isn’t my money — he’s the best analyst working today.
But Aikman won’t impact “Monday Night Football” ratings, or the desire for viewers to tune in, just as Romo, who signed a 10-year, $180 million deal before last season, doesn’t directly impact the interest level in CBS’s most appealing Sunday games.
If you want an ex-Cowboys quarterback who actually kept viewers tuned in, you’d have to go back to Dandy Don Meredith crooning, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over” on “Monday Night Football” in its ‘70s heyday. That broadcast booth, with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford, was a genuine cultural phenomenon. Nowadays, broadcasters are just paid as if they are.