Ray Lewis, Shannon Sharpe and the Business of Turning Athletes Into Broadcasters

5:00 AM PST 08/15/2013 by Eriq Gardner
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Shannon Sharpe transitioned from NFL tight end to anaylst on CBS' "The NFL Today."

The ex-Raven Ray landed a seven-figure salary on ESPN as live sports continues to explode and jocks who can talk find themselves among sports' most-wanted free agents.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In 11 NFL seasons, Ladainian Tomlinson rushed for 13,684 yards, fifth-most all time. When he retired in 2012 from the San Diego Chargers, the future Hall of Famer expected his days of being chased by sports executives to be over. But Tomlinson, 34, immediately got an offer from CBS to become an analyst and met with ESPN, Fox and NBC before signing with NFL Network. "It really is similar to the contracts you work out in football," he says. "Your agent comes back to you and tells you the offers and the best plan."

With DVR-proof sports proliferating on TV -- Fox is launching a national cable sports network Aug. 17, and all four major North American leagues own 24-hour channels -- the market for authoritative talking heads is booming. This is leading to second careers in broadcasting for more former athletes than ever before. Recruitment begins early, even before a player has retired, as networks race to line up star commentators.

"I keep a list of active players I'm interested in," says Seth Markman, a senior coordinating producer for NFL coverage at ESPN. "I'm aggressive. I've got about 25 players on my list."

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His list includes such obvious names as quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees but also lower-profile players like Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark. Markman studies news conferences, looking for telegenic personalities. Often, it's not obvious: Former NFL journeyman quarterback Tim Hasselbeck had to audition for his studio role, but when he did, he blew away ESPN execs. Others don't have to try out: Markman's big coup this off-season was beating rivals for Ray Lewis, a colorful former Baltimore Ravens linebacker who becomes a full-time ESPN analyst this month after retiring in February as a two-time Super Bowl champion.

With demand for ex-pros rising, one might expect salaries to increase. But that's not necessarily the case, according to an executive familiar with the money side. A top name can command $1 million to $2 million a year, says this exec, but lesser names earn about $200,000 to $400,000. Nonstars take home only $50,000 to $100,000 annually. Salaries can be adjusted according to how much training an athlete needs to improve his or her TV skills.

The pay scale hasn't changed much in the past decade because demand for talent hasn't outpaced the hundreds of retiring pros each year who want to do more than play golf. "There is no shortage of athletes retiring who want to be on television," says CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. "The problem is, there's still probably a finite number of really good ones."

The leagues themselves have been nurturing budding TV talent. In May, the NFL ran a four-day Sports Journalism & Communications Boot Camp for 23 current and former athletes at Bowling Green State University. Among the speakers was CBS Sports reporter Solomon Wilcots, an NFL defensive back during the late '80s and early '90s who later worked at a Cincinnati TV affiliate as an unpaid intern, slowly building his skills until he met McManus, who hired him.

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"I'd stay in the studio all night, working on editing or practicing reading from a teleprompter," says Wilcots. The hard work paid off during the Super Bowl in February, when the lights went out and CBS scrambled to fill time. "That's where my background in local news helps," he adds. "If I didn't have that experience, I probably would have failed miserably."

Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, an analyst on CBS' The NFL Today, says having strong opinions is helpful in making the transition. The problem is that many pro athletes spend years learning the Bull Durham cliches ("We gotta play one day at a time"). Broadcasters are totally different from team members who have "an obligation to give as little away as possible," he says.

On the other hand, athletes with colorful personalities or backstories also can present problems. ESPN is taking a chance on Lewis, who is a huge sports figure but is controversial because he once was charged with murder and peppers his interviews with religious references. Markman says ESPN got "creative" in its deal with the former linebacker but declines to elaborate. Lewis will get time off to see his son's college football games between appearances on Monday Night Football and elsewhere on the network. Plus, he likely is getting a seven-figure salary.

Orel Hershiser, a former Cy Young Award-winning Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who now is a baseball analyst for ESPN, predicts money soon will be a bigger factor in recruiting top athletes to the press box. "It's going to be harder and harder for them to convince athletes to be broadcasters," he says. "I was the highest-paid player in 1989, and I was getting $7.9 million over a three-year contract. $7.9 [million] for one year is barely a starting big-league player now."

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Nonetheless, there are other ways networks can convince athletes to join their teams. Michael Strahan used his platform as a sports analyst for Fox to cross over and co-host ABC's Live With Kelly and Michael. If an athlete wants to be on Dancing With the Stars or another Disney program, Markman says he makes no promises but will set up meetings. Tennis star Andy Roddick says he didn't want to go into broadcasting when he retired in 2012, but he agreed to join the new Fox Sports 1 after the network "promised a chance that I could talk about all sports and not just tennis."

And for many ex-athletes, simply having an opportunity to stay involved in their sport is a draw more valuable than any paycheck. "I retired at 32," says Tomlinson. "I couldn't imagine doing nothing."

Email: Eriq.Gardner@thr.com

Twitter: @EriqGardner

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