The streaming wars have come for professional football. Amazon spent the better part of 12 months backing up the Brinks trucks to try to lure anyone and everyone away from the traditional NFL broadcasters to prop up its new Thursday Night Football vehicle – ultimately landing Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit for a reported $24m per year combined.
And while Amazon was expected to be the great disruptor in the broadcasting arms race, it’s at one of the traditional networks that the merry-go-round has had its most transformative effect. ESPN pinched Joe Buck and Troy Aikman from Fox, handing over a Friday night college football game for the rights to pay the duo in excess of $100m over five years to rejuvenate its flagging Monday Night Football [shudders] brand.
ESPN’s marquee property has been paddling upstream ever since a pre-scandal Jon Gruden skedaddled back to coaching in 2018. There was the Jason Witten debacle; the BoogerMobile; leaps from one ill-fated booth to the next. The network’s bid to replicate the success of Tony Romo over on CBS was a flop: take a just-retired Cowboys player (in this case Witten) with little to no professional broadcasting experience and start the tape rolling. In Witten’s case, it was a mess.
Those Witten days were the nadir, dragging the league’s once-formidable booth to the bottom of the pack. The most recent installation of Monday Night Football was fine: a smorgasbord of banalities piloted by the ever-shouty Steve Levy, offset by the savvy analysis of Louis Riddick and Brian Griese – a combination who were good individually but struggled as a collective.
But the broadcast’s biggest problem was its own sister show: The Manningcast. While the main broadcast dwarfed the viewing figures of the Manningcast, the show led by the Manning brothers dominated the discourse surrounding Monday nights, with the NFL media ecosystem leaping into hyperdrive at the drop of a Peyton word or the flick of Eli’s finger. The NFL’s official YouTube channel put together a carefully choreographed half-hour package every Tuesday morning for those who missed it in real-time – racking up views in the millions. No such entry was ever made for the more conventional stylings of Levy, Griese, and Riddick.
Grabbing Fox’s ‘A’ crew is a bid from the executives at ESPN to microwave some credibility for the main booth – dragging it, with the writing of two very large checks, from the bottom rung of national productions up into the top-tier, one that will comfortably stand against Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth over at NBC and Amazon’s new Michaels-enforced property.
Buck and Aikman leaving Fox clears the way for Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen to assume the top seats at their network, which may turn out to be an upgrade. ESPN’s goal was different. They couldn’t take another swing on maybe-possibly talent, luring away a freshly retired player or sinking money into up-and-comers from another network – or dipping back into their college ranks. They wanted a sure thing. “When you have the opportunity to bring in the iconic, longest-running NFL broadcasting duo, you take it,” Jimmy Pitaro, the chairman of ESPN and sports content, said in a statement. “Especially at a time when we are on the cusp of a new era in our expanding relationship with the NFL.”
It’s the last portion of Pitaro’s statement that’s the most important. It solidifies where ESPN sees its future: Stephen A Smith and live games. To secure live game rights, you have to have a strong working relationship with the rights holder – in this instance, the NFL.
It should not go unstated that less than 14 months after ESPN laid off 300 people, and asked others to take pay cuts, it found $33ma year to pay a pair of announcers to call 18 games a season.
But live games are the central part of every sports broadcaster these days. Rights holders across sports continue to inch ever closer toward Pravda-style programming, looking at all times to preserve relationships in an era where athletes, leagues and teams can take to their own podcasts or social media feeds to tell their stories. When walking into negotiations with the NFL, Pitaro knew his flagship production was not cutting it to the league’s standard.
The “expanded relationship” Pitaro was noting was a nod to Disney – ESPN’s parent company – securing a further three Monday Night Football double-headers beginning next season. Disney also owns ABC, which will become a broadcaster of the Super Bowl from 2027. It doesn’t take an expert to read between the lines of the discussions between rights holder and broadcaster. You best get on the level of NBC and Fox by the time 2027 rolls around.
Buck and Aikman will bring competition back to Monday Night Football. There won’t be fireworks; there will be no innovation. But Disney and ESPN executives will never have to worry again about the broadcasting nudging up against the edges of an embarrassment – or field worrisome phone calls from the league’s big wigs.
How do you put a price on that? Talking on the South Beach Session podcast, John Skipper, the former head of ESPN, said that internal data at the company showed who was calling the game made little difference to audience figures. “I never saw a scintilla of evidence that the people in the booth changed the ratings even by a smidgen,” Skipper said. “The race to hire people is mostly about internal pride.”
Adding Buck and Aikman will not shift the network’s most important metrics: viewers and ad dollars. But the pair bring a certain feel to a big-game broadcast; Buck has risen from the son of a broadcasting legend to elder statesman calling World Series games, the Fox game of the week, and Super Bowls – whatever your opinion on his style, his voice conveys the message that this game matters. Aikman, meanwhile, won three Super Bowls with the NFL’s most famous team before beginning his long partnership with Buck.
ESPN’s venture has long felt amateurish compared to those of NBC and Fox. By swiping Fox’s crew, they will no longer have to wait to see if the booth gels – to take a punt on a McFarland or Witten; or to continue to try to coax Peyton Manning to step into the main booth.
Adding proven commodities – while lowering the ceiling of what a broadcast could be – is about removing any possible headaches; Disney is paying a premium to never have to worry about the broadcast – what viewers think of it, what tastemakers think, what the advertisers think. Most importantly: What the NFL thinks.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism