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Why are NFL broadcasts so stale?
The NFL is moving into a new digital frontier. It's targeting 'more' and 'better' broadcasts. Networks are paying their talent record-breaking sums. So why does it all feel so stale?
Prior to the start of training camp, the NFL’s media czar, Brian Rolapp, went on a press tour. Woven into a manifesto on the future of the league’s TV rights, Rolapp announced *deep breath* an increase in flexible scheduling, more double-headers, a new rollout of NFL Sunday Ticket, an update to the league’s GamePass offering overseas, and NFL+, a direct-to-consumer streaming service… a re-skin of GamePass… which already existed.
Wondering what the differences is between NFL+ and the stuff the league already offers through its partners? So is everyone else.
By the year 2045, the league will be swamped in standalone products. There will likely be team-owned, individual packages – a ‘virtual’ season ticket, if you will. Those could give you digital access to stream games, practices, press conferences, the works. Just as Major League Baseball mastered early in the streaming wars, the idea of splicing out an individual team package and a league-wide package is a formula the NFL can follow: NFL+ offers the insider-y bits for your team; a streaming giant or cable corporation absorbs the rights to broadcast the entire league. Keen consumers are forced to double dip for streaming services to cover their own team and the other 31 clubs.
Heck, Premier League clubs have dabbled with the idea of virtual reality tickets. Why does the capacity of Anfield have to be capped at 55,000? Why couldn’t you sell a virtual ticket to a supporter in Singapore or Southend? Why couldn’t they stick on ever-improving VR goggles and post up in the Kop, sat in a virtual seat, watching the game, in-stadium, from whatever vantage point they like, with all the sights and sounds of a live game. Why couldn’t a team boost its in-person attendance from 55,000 closer to 500,000 through the help of technology?
Would you pay to have live access to just Chiefs games? Would you stick an extra service on top to ensure you get all the other games? How much would you pay for access to practices? How much would you pile on top to receive a virtual ticket to a championship game at Arrowhead?
That’s the roadmap. The NFL has been slow to market on any kind of broadcast innovation, relying on the tried-and-true (and well-paid and well-viewed) formula of cable and linear television.
Moving to an NFL+ model is an acknowledgement that the streaming wars have come for professional football. Thursday Night Football is now the exclusive property of Amazon of course. In his open letter to fans, Rolapp defined his vision for the future of broadcasting as ‘more and better’ football, covered by ‘more and better’ broadcasts. The rest of his mission: More digital streaming of NFL games; more innovation of the game broadcasts; more ways to experience the NFL.
The success of ESPN’s ManningCast last season has networks scrambling to create more second-screen experiences of their own, broadcasts that can co-exist alongside the traditional first-down-and-ten style that has been imbued in football since networks began broadcasting the thing.
Rolapp wants to be more innovative, more creative, both in the delivery and presentation of the most valuable product on American television: Live football games. “If that all sounds like a lot of work and innovation, it is,” Rolapp wrote for Sports Illustrated. “If you think we are done, trust me, we are not.”
How do you square that idea with Amazon handing its TNF production to the chief architect of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, an 80-year-old Al Michaels, and college football’s top analyst, Kirk Herbstreit? And where’s the innovation in ESPN/ABC – now a home of Super Bowl broadcasts – swapping out its mundane Monday Night Football crew in exchange for Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, previously FOX’s top team?
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 Michaels and 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 Buck and 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.
In the game of broadcaster musical chairs, you have Fox’s crew heading to Disney, and an NBC and Disney employee helping to prop up Amazon. It’s a merry-go-round of the same-old, same-old. Yet while Michaels and Herbstreit and Buck and Aikman will put on professional broadcasts, it all feels a little stale. The same style, the same names.
Does it have to be this way?
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 installment 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 aforementioned Manningcast. While the main broadcast dwarfed its viewing figures, 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 its 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 is probably an upgrade at this point – at least until You Know Who comes along to sit beside Burkhardt.
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 even 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 $33m a 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.
I remind you: NFL ownership is made up of: A nonagenarian, four octogenarians, twelve septuagenarians, and ten owners aged 60 or over. Only four ownership groups are headed up by people in their 50s – and one of those is Daniel Snyder. The average age of an NFL owner is 70. They are comfortable with Buck and Aikman and Michaels.
Buck and Aikman will bring competency back to Monday Night Football. There won’t be fireworks; there will be none of Rolapp’s chest-puffing innovation. But Disney and ESPN executives will never have to worry again about the broadcast 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 Sessions 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 advertising 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.
And so, in one corner, you have the head of media trying to push the boat and the two young networks (by NFL standards) Amazon and Disney doing whatever they can to secure the veneer of credibility that will endear them to the league’s 32 owners – granting them evermore luxurious rights deals.
Where, exactly, is the innovation? Will it ever seep into the main show or will it always be held off to the side as a vanity vehicle for an online specific crowd?
At some point in the future, Tom Brady will arrive to call games on FOX. The greatest to have ever done it on the field will instantly be the most expensive broadcaster in the history of sports. He will learn a reported $375 million over ten years, whenever it is that he decides to stop playing. Not bad for 20-odd weeks' work.
As recently as five years ago, such a move would have been below Brady’s station. In the social media age, where live sports serve as the last bastion of the mono-culture, broadcasting live NFL games is good business; now, it earns you $37.5 million annually and a four-window to showcase all things Brand Brady to the last remaining captive audience. NFL games made up 75 of the top 100 most-watched broadcasts in the US in 2021, according to a study by the Sports Business Journal. And 95 of the top 100 were live sporting events. NFL broadcasts made up 14 of the top 15 most-watched shows. The lone holdout: the inauguration of President Biden… which slotted just behind Browns-Chiefs.
Having all those eyeballs and ears for hours of a week is its own form of currency in this vapid social media age. The exploding salaries aren’t half bad, either.
Romo was the first to break the dam. His penchant for play-call guessing and infectious enthusiasm made him an instant rockstar, as sports broadcasters go. The fact that his performance has steadily declined year on year, to the point where you can often be left wondering if he’s taking a mid-game nap during a snoozy Week 11 matchup or if he realizes he’s calling a Titans game and not the Lions has left CBS undeterred.
Romo’s regular season performance has been on the wane. One individual who has worked with Romo to help him prepare for games told The Read Optional that the former QB once turned up to a marquee regular season game with no knowledge of one of the team’s defenses. Thirty minutes before the game, Romo asked for a quick cheat sheet/scouting report on the team’s starters. As soon as the game kicked off, he info dumped what he had cribbed to an unsuspecting viewership. The pretense of homework out of the way, he could kick back and just be good ‘ol Tony. I can’t believe it, Jim!
For those who track schemes and X’s & O’s, it’s become abundantly clear how much Romo is guessing/making up concepts that teams are running, knowing full well that Jim Nantz, his broadcast partner, is not equipped to pull him up on the issue. The fumbling of sentences, lack of polish and enthusiasm was what initially endeared viewers to Romo. He’s just like me and my buddy watching games. But underpinning it all was real insight and analysis, the kind that hadn’t been seen on live game broadcasts since John Madden. Yet, even early last season, it was clear that he was on cruise control. That the concepts he was talking about for particular teams were already outdated.“It's just frustrating how little he cares for the job,” a source told The Read Optional. “It's just not serious, at all, to him. And he treats it accordingly”.
Romo, it seems, is aware that he knows so much more about football than those around him that he can bullshit his way through a game without anyone noticing – the audience included.
Romo signed a new long-term contract with CBS in 2020. He is paid $17 million a year to be the face of its NFL coverage. There is some trees in the woods at play here. Does it matter if an in-game analyst is BS’ing his was through a broadcast if the viewer doesn’t notice?
Romo still brings his A-plus-plus game in the postseason. And that matters. He can still reach heights that others cannot when he is fully engaged – amplifying a broadcast into something pretty special rather than being a presence that’s in the way of the game. That matters, too. But his early role as a pioneering voice has fallen away. He’s now just another voice – albeit an excitable one – among a ton of slop.
What does it say when the most exciting voice on national broadcasts got bored of his own shtick within three years? Where, exactly, will the creative presentation, the strong analysis, come from?
As Romo and Aikman and Brady secure record-breaking deal after record-breaking deal, it’s fair to wonder: Is this it? Is this all we can do?
Can’t the footballing world, you know, try things? Can’t we take risks; can’t we see if this can be done a little differently? Can’t we rip up the playbook altogether?
Sure, maybe the national TV broadcasts can remain the same blah, star-led, vehicles – Al and Kirk serving as an end-of-day comfy blanket. But can’t the league take some chances – try some new voices – on its regional broadcasts, broadcasts that still comfortably chart in the top 100 TV shows of any given year? Is the best we can do a third-screen collaboration with the ‘dudes’ from Dude Perfect? I mean, come on now.
Will anyone really miss Greg Gumbel on a Colts-Jags game in Week 17 if he was swapped out for a booth featuring Conan O’Brien and Bill Burr? What about a Pat McAfee Show takeover? Would a MNF broadcast be worse off if they just stuck the NFL Live crew – Laura Rutledge, Dan Orlovsky, Mina Kimes and Marcus Spears – in the booth to offer a different vantage than hammering second-down-and-nine for a week? Amazon offered life-altering money to Sean McVay to leave the Rams. Did they consider offering it to Rob Gronkowski or Larry Fitzgerald or Richard Sherman?
The league needs different voices. It has gotten insular, chasing famous former quarterbacks because famous former quarterbacks sell – with advertisers, the league office, and the audience. But it limits the potential of the broadcast.
Just look at the top two voices currently on screens: Greg Olsen and Aqib Talib.
They are different. They say things. They have fun. They inform and entertain.
Olsen is a rising star – one who will soon be bumped from FOX’s top booth once Brady arrives. As a former tight end, he offers a different vantage point than the cavalcade of ex-QBs. Talib’s less-than-polished style might not be to everyone’s liking. But he, too, offers a different perspective than the traditional voices that we hear on gameday broadcasts.
Defensive backs rarely get airtime on national broadcasts unless that former DB just so happens to be Deion Sanders. Talib has star-quality credentials: He’s charismatic; he takes the complex and makes it sound easy; he is as comfortable cracking jokes about a dodgy officiating call as he is discussing the particulars of simulated pressures. He has a genuine connection with Gus Johnson, who puts Talib in the best spots to succeed.
What would you be more excited to hear open up Thursday Night Football? The Gusgasm and Talib or Michaels and Herbstreit? Which one sounds like a more traditional, conservative broadcast, and which one sounds different?
"The reality is that for a not-small population of football fans, Talib marks the first time they've heard someone who sounds like them in a broadcast booth," Yahoo Sports columnist Shalise Manza Young wrote in December. "He's quite literally speaking their language — Black English, or as it's called by academics, African American Vernacular English, the dialect developed by Black Americans over centuries. It is often cited as another way to denigrate those who use it because it's not the 'accepted' way of speech here."
Amazon has added Talib to its Thursday night package… as part of a cavalcade of pre-game voices. What about during the actual games, when people, you know, watch?
Amazon had a chance to take Talib (or Richard Sherman or Interesting Announcer X) and to help elevate them from a football figure into a pop cultural star. To turn them into someone synonymous with the ‘brand’: Talib is Thursday Night Football — and Thursday Night Football is Amazon. Michaels and Herbstreit will do a good job, but they won’t be synonymous with a specific game or night of the week. Michaels is Michaels — and Herbstreit will always be the voice of college football.
Instead, alongside Tony Gonzalez and Richard Sherman, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, Talib will be crammed into overly-choreographed 15-second increments, with Amazon looking to replicate the old, stodgy style we’re accustomed to from the pre-game shows broadcast networks. Out goes Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson; in comes Sherman and Talib. Rinse. Repeat. The last two have the potential to actually say things, and yet the constraints of the format will box them in. Wouldn’t you much rather have the two sat bullshitting, podcast style, orbiting around a master of ceremonies like Johnson during the games?
Tom Brady might be great, whenever it is he lands at FOX. Given his track record, he probably will be great. But he certainly fits the tired model (as much as Brady can resemble anyone else): He’s a super famous quarterback.
Where is Vince Wilfork? Where is Andrew Whitworth? Games are won and lost on the line of scrimmage, we are continually (rightly) told. Where are the voices who can flash to the line of scrimmage in real time and explain to the audience the nuances of what is happening and why? And why aren’t those voices driving the conversation on the league’s most-watched broadcasts?
No one cares about the announcers. They want to watch the action. That’s true. But that’s also by design; did you hear Jason Witten say a single interesting thing over the course of his career before he vaulted straight to the top job at ESPN?
There is a big difference in the broadcast world between run-of-the-mill below-average and total sinkhole. The NFL intentionally chases that too-bland-to-care style. It embraces the non-offense Gumbels of the world. In everything they do, the league leans conservative; they are trying at all times to minimize the risk that you might flip the channel to anything else. Hiring a high-wattage personality increases the risk, even if that person could raise the ceiling of the product.
As it moves into a new world, the NFL and its broadcast partners should push the envelope. They should try things. Good enough should not be the standard.
There are more mouths to feed than ever before — and there will be new partnerships and more games in the near future. And yet there is a hegemony of styles, whether it’s inside the walls of ESPN, the streaming disruptors, or the cob-webbed ruins over at CBS.
Rolapp aims to push the league into a new age. His target: ‘more’ and ‘better’ broadcasts. A better target: different and interesting.
Comment below with: A) Your favorite of the broadcast teams; B) Who you would like to see in a broadcast booth (an individual or full team)