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In the history of the NFL, there has never been more action in the broadcast booth than there is right now. A confluence of factors has led to boom times for top-tier play-by-play announcers and analysts.
ESPN’s move March 16 to poach the team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman from Fox Sports rocked the sports media world, while Al Michaels, after 16 years with NBC, opted to exit when his contract expired. He was closing in on a rich deal with Amazon to call games on Thursday nights.
It all leaves Fox looking for a new NFL A-team, NBC deciding on Michaels’ successor and Amazon apparently betting on Michaels to bring gravitas to its telecasts (the streamer had simulcast Fox, CBS and NBC broadcasts in recent years but now will produce its own games for the first time as part of its exclusive package). In other words, Buck-Aikman is just the beginning of the talent jostling to come. “It was good to be in business with NFL analysts before,” quips one high-level agency source, “but it is even better now.”
(ESPN, as it happens, actually struck a “trade” with Fox to get its deal done. Buck had a year left on his contract, and a source confirms to THR that in exchange for letting him go early, ESPN gave Fox the rights to a Penn State-Purdue football game next season.)
The chaos can trace its origin to two mega-deals: Analyst Tony Romo’s 10-year, $180 million contract with CBS in 2020 and the NFL’s 11-year, $110 billion rights packages signed with CBS, NBC, ESPN, Fox and Amazon last year.
Romo’s deal single-handedly inflated the salary expectations for every top announcer and analyst, the agency source notes, shifting the salary floor from the mid-high seven figures to the low eight figures, with the best talent securing even richer deals. Hence Buck and Aikman’s estimated combined $30 million-plus annual haul and why NBC analyst and Michaels’ former partner Cris Collinsworth is seeking a contract extension and a big pay hike.
The huge NFL rights deals, driven by the league’s TV-leading viewership, make it easier to justify the inflated paydays. “If you are spending $2 billion per year just for the rights to the games, why wouldn’t you spend an extra few hundred million to make sure you are putting together the best possible production?” the agency source adds.
A source familiar with the rights negotiations notes that the league chooses its media partners in part because it trusts them to deliver production values “worthy” of the game. And there is more football than ever to produce: the NFL last year moved to a 17-game regular season and added two extra wild card playoff contests.
At the same time, the league has made no secret of the fact that it is encouraging its rights partners to add even more NFL coverage, most notably through alternate broadcasts like ESPN’s effort hosted by Peyton and Eli Manning or Nickelodeon’s kids-friendly wild card telecast hosted by Noah Eagle, Nate Burleson and Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, complete with special effects and slime.
The ESPN “Manningcast” proved so successful, the network extended its deal with the brothers through 2024 and asked them to develop other telecasts for sports like the UFC. Major rights partners might end up with multiple NFL booths, just as ESPN is doing with Buck-Aikman and the Mannings.
And networks can expect to pay handsomely for the talent on those broadcasts too. NFL Media COO Hans Schroeder told reporters on a conference call last March that the league was excited about the potential for the alternate broadcast feeds: “We know our fan base is big enough that I think there’s a good chunk of our fans that want to engage in these new experiences, not only on different screens but with different forms of delivery.”
It all comes together in a perfect storm, where there are more announcers and analysts calling more games on more platforms than ever and TV rights holders willing to shell out more to secure that A-list talent and justify their multibillion-dollar investments in the game. For those in the booth, it’s game on.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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