Part 1: The Choking Point
The strangest thing about Joe Buck and Troy Aikman calling an NFL game for Fox is how normal it feels. Twenty-five years ago this month, Fox took over pro football. It didn’t feel normal. It felt like an unnatural cultural event. Bart Simpson was going to do play-by-play, and Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch would cackle as he took over a sacred rite of American life.
In December 1993, Murdoch did what our tech overlords are allegedly going to do in a few years. Murdoch wrote a $1.6 billion check to drive eyeballs to his new media company. A few weeks later, Murdoch paid a smaller but still huge sum to hire CBS’s John Madden. The rise of Fox Sports wasn’t destined to be an underdog tale, like the ESPN origin story. Murdoch was exploiting the vulnerabilities of the old networks as a way of gaining his own credibility in the United States.
If the rise of Fox Sports was just about money, or if the product had turned into a haunted mansion like Fox News, we could leave it at that. But Murdoch’s lieutenants at Fox Sports had a creative side. They thought TV football had gotten stale — “boring as shit,” one of them said in an Aussie accent. “Fox-izing” football meant the pregame show would be about laughs and relationships as much as it would be about sports. It meant the score and clock would be on the screen at all times. It meant Buck, who was all of 25 years old, would call the first football game of his life in front of a national audience.
Today, everything from Buck to the Fox Box to an unrestrained Terry Bradshaw seems normal, almost even respectable. That’s why it’s worth revisiting the nine-month period beginning in December 1993, to see how and why TV football changed forever.
This oral history consists of original quotations, some of which have been edited and condensed. The speakers’ titles occasionally change during the narrative. At the end of the ’93 NFL season, Bradshaw is an analyst on CBS’s The NFL Today; later, he’s a founding yukster of Fox NFL Sunday.
The story begins in 1993, just as the old NFL rights deals were about to expire. From his yacht, Murdoch called Jerry Jones, the newish owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Murdoch had tried to acquire NFL rights twice before, in 1987 and 1990. He felt the NFL had used him as a bogeyman to frighten the networks into paying more money. This time, Murdoch wanted to be a serious player.
As Jones recalled recently: “He said, ‘Jerry, I think I was a stalking horse last time. I’m not going to do that and be just a stalking horse.’”
Jones continued: “I said, ‘Mr. Murdoch, I wasn’t a part of that negotiation. But I am this one.’”
The TV landscape of 1993 seems quaint in the age of streaming. Back then, there were three major networks. Each of them had a “package” of NFL games. CBS had the NFC. NBC had the AFC. And ABC had Monday Night Football. (ESPN and Turner shared a less-glamorous slate of Sunday-night games.)
Of the three NFL packages, CBS’s was the gold standard. CBS had been an NFL TV partner since 1956. The NFC had won nine straight Super Bowls. But what CBS really treasured was the cities that NFC teams were in: Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, Dallas, San Francisco. CBS had the most valuable sports-rights deal in America.
John Madden, CBS analyst: Having the NFC East plus the Bears plus San Francisco — it was just so doggone good. We had the good teams and the big games.
Jim Gray, CBS reporter: The NFL was ingrained in the walls of CBS like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
Rick Gentile, CBS Sports executive producer and senior vice president of production: The expectation was that we were going to renew as we always had. CBS was a broadcaster for the NFL since the beginning, before the Pete Rozelle days. We always renewed.
Neal Pilson, CBS Sports president: We were the incumbents for the Sunday package. There were vague references to the fact there might be another network interested — another potential buyer. Now, the league has always done that to us. Never in a threatening way, but in an offhand, casual way. “Oh, if you don’t want to pay the price, we might have somebody else interested in your package!”
What happened in 1993 was that the old-line networks were coming under increasing pressure. All three were run by cost-cutters: ABC by Capital Cities, NBC by General Electric, and CBS by theater mogul Larry Tisch. After the 1990–91 recession, the cost-cutters complained, almost in union, that their NFL deals were leaving them in the red. “No way I am going to lose money on the NFL,” Tisch thundered.
Under its previous deal, CBS had paid $265 million a year for the NFC. The network calculated that it could break even if it paid the NFL $250 million a year. So Tisch did something audacious: He told his executives to offer the NFL no more than that figure, which amounted to a $15 million pay cut. Neal Pilson, the president of CBS Sports, was in a bind: How could he appease his boss and keep the rights to the NFC?
Dick Ebersol, NBC Sports president: When the advertising business hit the wall in ’91, it affected everybody equally. People who were big sports-rights holders really were in deep doo-doo because suddenly advertisers had to pull their money back. They were having all kinds of problems because of the economy tanking.
Bob Stenner, CBS producer: It’s funny in this business. When prime time is doing really well and the shows are getting ratings, it’s like, “Why do we need a sports department?” When the ratings go to shit, they love the sports department, because it gives ’em an opportunity to promote the crap that’s not doing well.
Paul Tagliabue, NFL commissioner: Everyone always complains about paying too much to the NFL. But you knew what that meant. You had to understand some of it was just rhetoric.
George Krieger, Fox Inc. vice president: The [NFL] broadcasting committee was being told it had to take a reduction in rights. Everybody was like, “Woe is me.” There was a feeling in the league of, “OK, we know that. Just shut the fuck up and don’t put it in the papers.”
Tagliabue: Larry Tisch was different as owner of the CBS network than some of the prior ownership. He was not a television guy like Bill Paley, who understood the value of brand identification and the power of unique content. Larry was more focused on margins and cost factors.
Pilson: Larry had only one thing on his desk at CBS, and that was a Quotron. It was running readout of the stock market. It would face him, so you wouldn’t see it. You’d be talking to him, and he’d be looking at his stock price — his and everybody else’s.
In 1993, Fox was the Big Three networks’ bratty half-brother. Created in 1986, it was capable of simultaneously producing some of the very best and very worst shows on TV. It had The Simpsons and The X-Files. It also had Chevy Chase’s late-night talk show and a sitcom where Henry Winkler played Rush Limbaugh lite. Fox’s big problem was that it was hard for viewers to see. More than 85 percent of Fox’s affiliates were UHF stations — meaning, they were located on channels 14 through 83.
That Fox saw the NFL as a way of gaining credibility was ironic. The year before, as part of its strategy of giving the finger to the old networks, Fox had aired an In Living Color special opposite CBS’s Super Bowl halftime show. Now, Rupert Murdoch was saying, he wanted the Super Bowl.
Sandy Grushow, Fox entertainment division president: In the very beginning, ’87 or ’88, Brandon Tartikoff referred to Fox as the coat-hanger network. You had to have an antenna with tinfoil to find Fox.
Chase Carey, Fox Inc. executive vice president: Fox at that point was really just a two-hour-a-night prime-time network. We’d had a late-night flurry. But we really hadn’t taken on a broader day part.
Tracy Dolgin, Fox Broadcasting executive vice president of marketing: We would have a great show like The X-Files. But the ratings weren’t what the ratings on The X-Files would have been if it were on CBS, NBC, or ABC. It wasn’t because the show wasn’t good. It was because a lot of people never turned Fox on.
Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner: I wouldn’t have been such a proponent of them if I did not have that tingle in me that says, “I’d buy some of that network! These guys are sharp, they’ve got great ideas.”
Vince Wladika, NBC Sports manager of media relations: “The next logical step for Fox to grow was to get into sports. It was obvious.”
Tagliabue: “In ’87, it was Barry Diller talking about Monday Night Football. It was almost tongue-in-cheek because the network at that time was described as the Joan Rivers network. They came back in 1990. By 1992, Chase Carey was running the operation, and the focus had shifted to the Sunday afternoon packages, particularly the NFC package with CBS. I think they had recognized that this could be a network-maker, not only in terms of the Fox brand, but the VHF affiliates that would switch to Fox.”
Carey: The bet at Fox was not, “How much money do we make buying the rights?” You weren’t going to make money buying the rights. What it was going to do was give you momentum to build the business around those rights.
Dennis Swanson, ABC Sports president: “We were doing a Monday Night Football game down in Dallas early in the season. Jerry Jones had a big luncheon, and I noticed several NFL owners at this luncheon. I went up to Jerry, and he said, “Ah, Dennis, Fox wants in on the NFL. We’re having a meeting this afternoon to discuss it.” I thought, “Oh my goodness.”
Dolgin: You have to understand this. No matter what anybody says, this was a Hail Mary. We did not expect to win.
Beyond their financial problems, in 1993 the Big Three networks found themselves facing new power brokers in the NFL. Paul Tagliabue, who was in his fifth year as commissioner, was determined to make better TV deals than his predecessor, Pete Rozelle. In 1990, Tagliabue brought in a new partner, Turner, and the NFL’s Sunday-night cable package exploded in value. For Tagliabue, it was instructive: He could get better deals if he had more networks than he had packages.
Power was shifting inside the owners’ boxes, too. For years, the Browns’ Art Modell, the chairman of the NFL’s broadcasting committee, had been a pal to networks like CBS. But by ’93, Modell was sidelined by the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Broncos’ Pat Bowlen. Having leveraged themselves to buy into the NFL, Jones and Bowlen had little sympathy for CBS. They needed the money.
As a duo, Bowlen and Jones were near opposites. Bowlen was slow to warm to people while Jones was all arm-twisting charm. “Pat’s the brains, and I’m the muscle,” Jones liked to say. Nowhere could their power be seen more than in the reaction to the so-called Modell Compromise in 1992. As the networks cried poverty, Modell had the idea to offer them a modest refund of their rights fees. Jones went ballistic.
Jones: I did everything in my power I could to get seven other votes to basically stop that deal that Art Modell had negotiated. I really, really made a big lobbying effort with Norm Braman, with Al Davis. … That’s when Tagliabue asked me to go on the TV committee.
Jay Rosenstein, CBS Sports vice president of programming: That was the subtext, that the culture of the NFL had changed. Modell couldn’t deliver the old-line NFL owners who were in it less for the money and more for the thrill of being an owner.
Ebersol: The key to those negotiations more than anything else was Pat Bowlen and Jerry Jones. There never would have been a Fox network if the two of them hadn’t stood up and repudiated Modell.
Carey: [Jerry] came into the sport believing it had a lot of upside. … We wanted to be the ones saying, “We believe what you believe. There’s a lot of growth left, and here’s how we’re going to do it.”
Pilson: I was at some of the meetings [with Jones and Bowlen], and they were cordial. But I don’t think they had any particular loyalty or affection for CBS.
Tagliabue: If you have three packages and three bidders, you’re not going to do very well. It’s like musical chairs. You always have to have one more person looking for seats than you have seats. … When you brought new players to the table, it was a different set of negotiations. All the networks understood that, except maybe CBS.
On December 7, Fox executives went to Dallas to try to dispel whatever fears the league had about partnering with a small, rickety network. For the creative razzle-dazzle, Murdoch turned to David Hill, the Australian president of the U.K.’s Sky Sports channel. Hill, who would become the major creative force at Fox Sports, understood that the NFL didn’t just want to see snazzy graphics and hear new ideas about coverage. It wanted to be loved.
David Hill, head of Sky Sports: I put together a tape. And I wrote this thing up: “This is how we do soccer in England, and this is how we’ll do American football.”
Krieger: Hill just killed it. He said, “At the other networks, the A and B games have seven cameras and the rest have five. We’ll have a minimum of seven cameras at every game, and the big games will have 12 cameras. We’ll have more angles, more for the viewers.” He talked about audio. “The excitement in the NFL is its sound.”
Jones: I was just mesmerized by their imaginative thinking. They were changing the presentation of the game.
Krieger: “Why is the league only marketed six months a year?” All our Fox stations were going to promote the NFL 12 months a year.
Jones: The NFL was going to be the star of the network.
Krieger: It’s somebody telling them, “You’re the prettiest girl in the room.” They hadn’t heard that in a while. They’d heard, “We’re losing money.”
Dolgin: The NFL didn’t necessarily want to take a bid from Fox. It seems crazy now, but we were sort of a weblet. Our audience was urban, young, irreverent. It was the opposite of the religious NFL.
Preston Padden, Fox Broadcasting president of network distribution: There were about 60 cities in the United States where there was no fourth TV station to become our affiliate. CBS was saying to the NFL, “If you move these rights to Fox, in these 60 cities there will be no free over-the-air broadcast of the NFL.” Mr. Murdoch said, “You got to come to this meeting with the NFL TV committee.” Mr. Murdoch did not tell me what he was going to say. We stand up in front of the TV committee, and he says, “Within 60 days, Preston will get a secondary affiliation with some TV station in every one of these 60 markets.” I just about wet my pants.
As the negotiations entered their final week, CBS’s Neal Pilson was scrambling for information. Pilson was skeptical the NFL would take $250 million for the NFC rights, like Larry Tisch wanted. Pilson needed to find out what number the league would accept. He saw his chance on December 12, when Paul Tagliabue made his annual visit to the set of CBS’s pregame show, The NFL Today.
Pilson: I had asked Paul to step outside the studio for a minute. “Paul, what’s the number? What do we need to do here? What is the number we really got to get to to make this work?” He said, “$295 million.”
Tagliabue: I don’t remember that. … I think we understood that the number had to begin with a “3,” not a “2.”
Pilson: I think if we had closed at $295 million early in the week, that would have been over. That was kind of the tragedy of the whole thing. We had that number all week. All we had to do was say yes.
On Thursday, CBS was having its Christmas party at the home of president Howard Stringer. Pilson figured that was his chance to get Tisch to sign off on $295 million. Then Fox would have to go elsewhere, and CBS would keep the NFC.
Unlike CBS, Fox wasn’t much worried about losing money on football. As Murdoch would later boast, he regarded the price of NFL rights as the price of buying a network — and whatever he paid the NFL would be cheaper than buying CBS or NBC outright.
The negotiation process Paul Tagliabue had outlined allowed Fox to place a single bid on CBS’s and NBC’s Sunday-afternoon packages. CBS and NBC could then choose to match the bid, ending the negotiation. Fox’s bid had to be just right.
Ed Goren, CBS Sports senior producer: The common belief back then was that they may be going after NBC’s AFC package. I don’t know this guy Rupert Murdoch, but if he’s the riverboat gambler I’ve been reading about, why would they go and overpay for the second-best package? Why not go and get the best package, the NFC?
Hill: Rupert, God bless him, he knew sport was key. He knew the NFL was key. But Chase understood that in terms of developing the business, the NFC gave him the main metropolitan markets. I’ve always said this on many occasions. The architect of Fox Sports is Chase Carey.
Padden: The finance people and the salespeople at the network got together and said, “OK, how much can we pay for these rights?” They did an analysis of what kind of advertising they could sell and came up with the maximum break-even number. Then Mr. Murdoch came bounding into the room and said, “What do we have to bid?” We told him. He said, “That’s not enough. The NFL doesn’t really want their games on our network. They’re just using us to bid up CBS. I’ve got to bid CBS away from the table.”
Carey: You had to have a number that — I don’t have a better word for it — made them choke.
Murdoch eventually came up with the choking point: four years, $1.6 billion for the NFC rights. In 1993, it was an astonishing figure. It was half a billion dollars more than CBS had paid under their old deal, and 60 percent more than CBS was offering on the current one.
Krieger: When he does a deal, Rupert’s thinking about, “What’s this going to look like 10 years out, 20 years out? Will this help me build a network?” The other guys are trying to manage financials for the next quarterly financial report.
Ebersol: Did I ever think in my wildest dreams that there wasn’t going to be $400 million coming in on the other side? No.
Carey: It was fairly late Thursday night when we went over to make the offer.
Jones: I’ll never forget when we were sitting right beside each other there in New York — Pat [Bowlen] and I. The number came in for the NFC package. And underneath the table, we were kickin’ the living shit out of each other. He kept a straight face and I kept a straight face. We just kicked each other.
Tagliabue: To come in with a “4” instead of a “3” was pretty startling.
Roger Headrick, Minnesota Vikings president and CEO: We had no idea that the TV rights could escalate to that kind of a level.
Jones: It was aggressive enough that one of the biggest questions was, “Can they pay this?” As a matter of fact, there were several owners who said, “We need to get some lines of credit here to back this up.”
Because the next four Super Bowls would be split among three networks and Fox would get only one of them, Fox’s bid was lowered slightly, to $395 million.
Carey: The part I remember is, after I said [the $400 million number], Jerry Jones came up and said, “You guys are players.” That was Jerry’s response.
The same night Fox delivered its bid, CBS’s Christmas party was turning into a war council. Neal Pilson and other executives had taken Larry Tisch to Howard Stringer’s second-floor bedroom. The sound of carols filtered in from the floor below. The executives were trying to convince Tisch to up his bid to $295 million a year for the NFC rights. They had no idea that, across town, Fox had just added $100 million a year to the price.
Pilson: We get Larry upstairs in Howard Stringer’s bedroom. We just hammered him, saying, “We gotta do this.”
Rosenstein: I have a memory of Larry sitting on the bed, and everybody else kind of hovering around. … People were finally summoning up the courage to tell him what it’s going to take to close the deal.
Pilson: Larry finally said, “All right, all right. I hear you. Let’s get our bid up to $295 million.” Literally at that point we get a phone call downstairs from the NFL.
Tagliabue: We got them at the CBS Christmas party.
Pilson: Peter Lund went down to take the call. He came back up to the room and he was white as a sheet. He said, “You got to sit down, everybody. You’re not going to believe this. But the league has a $400 million–a-year offer from Fox for our package.”
Gentile: Here’s Fox trying to join the gang and saying the only way we can be real is getting the NFL. It’s completely, 180 degrees the opposite attitude our guy had.
Rosenstein: I said to Larry, “It’s all about the network. They’re building a network, Larry.”
Pilson: Larry said, “That’s it. Eff ’em. We’re not going to do $400 million.” Nobody really had the balls or the instinct to say, “We really should match that offer.” Which we had the right to do.
The CBS executives went back to the party. Rick Gentile had written a satirical version of “The First Noel,” and now they sang it together.
We are in such a box,
If we can’t hit their number,
They’re going to Fox.
The whole sports division is going to hell!
CBS had choked.
On Friday, Fox executives sat in their midtown office waiting for word from the NFL.
Krieger: We’re waiting and waiting and waiting. Rupert comes down from his office and says, “Anything?” As if he wasn’t going to be the first one to know. He says, “Look, if it helps, I could call Paul Tagliabue and put some more money on the table.” At that point, the room, in unison, said, “No!” Isn’t that Rupert? If $400 million a year isn’t enough, do you need some more?
Ken Ziffren, NFL outside counsel: I called Fox and said, “We have good news for you.”
Grushow: In some ways, we had no right to acquire the rights. That’s what made it such a masterstroke. That’s why you have to give Rupert and Chase so much credit for pulling it off. In some ways, it felt like a heist we paid for.
Padden: It saved us. It absolutely saved us. The people inside the network, we thought we were doing OK. But the network was losing tons of money.
Hill: I believe if they hadn’t gotten the NFL, Fox would have puttered along, like the WB or UPN.
Steve Bornstein, ESPN president: When the league took that package from CBS and Tisch and sent it to Rupert and Chase at Fox, it changed the dynamic for the next 30 years. In the past, all the content that you were buying from the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball, the broadcaster had to maintain a profit on it. Now, you could rationalize that that’s how you build a network and get attention.
Rosenstein: The kicker to the whole story is that, four years later, when CBS had new management — Tisch was gone — they paid $500 million for the weaker package. Four years later.
Jones: It was a watershed moment for the NFL. Period. … We went from one thing to something else when Fox came in. … It inspired me when I was building the stadium because I had seen the power and the interest in football as it’s manifested through television. I spent another 50 percent so that John Madden would say, “Folks, you ought to see this place.”
Headrick: The players got the benefit of that, too. They were getting somewhere in the high 50s, 58 percent or so of total revenue. That was a huge thing for salaries.
Hill: The next thing I know, Monday afternoon, George Krieger rang me from New York. He said, “Have you seen The Wall Street Journal?” This thing came out on the fax. It said, “Fox has the NFL. Australian-born David Hill is the president of Fox Sports.” I rung Rupert. He said, “Where are you?” I said, “London.” He said, “Oh, God, you better come out here. There’s a lot to be done.”
CBS’s announcers had heard rumors about Fox. But few understood the nature of the threat. Starting Friday, they got the news that they had essentially lost their jobs.
Terry Bradshaw, CBS pregame analyst: I got a call at 4 a.m. from Greg Gumbel. He said, “Did you hear the news?” I said, “No, what?” He said, “Fox has the NFC package. They got it from CBS.” I went, “You gotta be kidding me.” I never even heard of Fox.
Matt Millen, CBS analyst: When it came down, I said, “What’s Fox?” I’m not a TV guy. The answer was even more confusing. They said, “You know, it’s the one that has that cartoon show.” I was like, “That’s great. So they’re going to take over the NFL.”
Dick Stockton, CBS play-by-play announcer: We were just stunned. Not because we said, “OK, I’m going to work for Fox.” We weren’t even thinking of that. We just said, “It’s over. It’s over.”
Verne Lundquist, CBS play-by-play announcer: I was in New Jersey getting ready to do a Dallas Cowboys–New York Jets game. We got a call probably at 3:30. Jimmy Johnson arrived in the meeting room. He looked at us and said, “Good lord, guys, what’s wrong?” Dan [Fouts] or I said, “Well, we just lost the NFL after 38 years.” There was a pause, and then Jimmy said, “It’s a tough fucking business, boys, on both sides of the ball.”
Jimmy Johnson, Dallas Cowboys head coach: They forgot about interviewing me for the game. They were out of a job. Everybody at CBS was in shock.
Lesley Visser, CBS reporter: Neal Pilson gathered us and he tried to say, “Hey, look, we’ve still got a lot. We’ve got the Masters. We’ve got the U.S. Open.” That’s when Bradshaw had that legendary line, “Does the Masters have a pregame show?”
Bradshaw: I’m thinking, “I’m out of a job.” I called my uncle and I said, “Look, we just lost the football package to Fox. We got to sell all my cattle, all my horses.” And we did. In two weeks, I sold everything. Couldn’t afford to keep ’em.
Madden: Guys that just did football, they knew that they had to go some place because there’s no more football at CBS. It was tough to do and tough to kind of say goodbye to everyone.
Joe Buck, St. Louis Cardinals announcer: I happened to be working at KMOX radio. I was doing a sport open-line — a call-in show. That [Fox news] came across the teletype or the news wire. I remember reading it like, “This is a travesty! I can’t believe Bart Simpson’s going to be doing the NFL!” That was my hot take of the night. Little did I know that, within three and a half months, I was going to be sitting there in front of all those people doing an audition.
CBS had lost the NFC package, but its executives felt they had one card left to play. Why couldn’t they take the $250 million they were willing to pay for the NFC and offer it for the AFC package — money-whipping NBC as Fox had money-whipped them?
Gentile: I do remember a group of us got together and said, “Maybe we need to do the unthinkable: go after the AFC package.” It was unthinkable. The affiliates would go crazy. All the biggest markets are NFC markets.
Krieger: CBS is running down the street waving an envelope full of money.
Artie Kempner, CBS director: Ed Goren calls me. He said, “I want you to put together the greatest CBS moments. We’re going to present that to the NFL and we’re going to try to get the AFC package from NBC.” I spend literally 36 straight hours pulling the greatest things in the history of CBS Sports’ NFL coverage. I’m like eight minutes into the piece and Eddie calls and says, “Forget about it. It’s over.”
CBS was offering the NFL more money for the AFC rights — $250 million versus NBC’s $217 million. But the NFL wouldn’t accept the bid. NBC’s Dick Ebersol, having heard about Fox’s bid, had already raced back to the NFL to make a handshake deal for the AFC rights. And Paul Tagliabue reminded CBS that while Fox was allowed to bid on both packages, CBS and NBC were only allowed to bid on their own.
Ebersol: I don’t know if this part’s ever been out there. Fox, when they anted up the $400 million for their bid, told the league they would take either package for the $400 million. That’s how eager they were to get in. … I went straight back and saw the brass at NBC. [They said], “What do you suggest we do?” I said, “We go back. We tell them that we’re prepared to bid $217 million. But here’s our one want. We want two Super Bowls.”
Ziffren: Ebersol was very, very smart and put in a bid that was on the one hand disappointing but on the other was good enough that we would likely take it.
Tagliabue: CBS came back the next day and said, “We’d like to go after the AFC package.” I had to tell them, “If you’re the loser on the first round, you don’t have a second round, even if we think we can get more in a second round. We’re not going to do that.” That was explicitly understood by both networks.
Jones: That was the thinking: We got to do what we said.
Ebersol: Paul had a dinner that night with one of the most important owners in the league, [Leon] Hess. They were sitting down in Leon’s office. Paul said, “Here’s what’s going on.” Leon looked at him and said, “Have you given your word?” Paul said, “Yes.” Leon said, “Then let’s go to dinner.” That, to me, is one of the most honorable things in a business that has had good times and bad times when it comes to people’s word.
Krieger: Dick was very clever. He got an extra Super Bowl out of it. NBC got two Super Bowls. They got the best deal. ABC got one, and we got one. With the second Super Bowl, NBC probably covered all the extra money they put on the table.
The NFC championship game, held on January 23, doubled as a memorial service for the NFL on CBS. After the broadcast ended, John Madden sat in the booth for a half hour, like a ballplayer whose team had just lost the World Series. Greg Gumbel nearly cried as he signed off the postgame show.
Madden: I loved CBS and I thought I’d be there my whole broadcasting career. I’d never go anyplace else. Then this happens.
Gray: You hate to say this because it sounds stupid. But it was like losing a member of your family. It was that upsetting.
Goren: At the end of the game, everybody from production assistants to producers to talent congregated by the trucks, knowing it was now over. There were people in tears and hugging. Just distraught. The reality sunk in that this is it. It’s over and we don’t know if we’ll ever get it back.
Bradshaw: I remember doing that game that week. I already had a contract with Fox. I just didn’t say a word.
Gentile: Afterward, at some Mexican restaurant, we had a wrap party for the end of the season. But, of course, it was a wrap party for the NFL. My God, what an event that was. Saying goodbye to Pat Summerall and John Madden — it was unbearable.
Visser: John got up and spoke for everybody. He said, “Look, nobody can ever take from us how great this was.”
Pilson: All of the things we predicted would happen happened as a result of losing the NFL. Our ratings with the male audience significantly dropped. We lost affiliates to Fox. Sunday-night ratings for 60 Minutes went down. And our overall network ratings went down. It was a disaster for CBS.
Gentile: We had to do the Olympics in Lillehammer. When we got home, I had to fire half my staff. It was absolutely tragic, heartbreaking.
Pilson: When I got back from Lillehammer, I was advised that the company wanted to go in a different direction with respect to sports leadership. I took another job at the company for a year. Then I retired at age 55.
Gentile: People who said that we didn’t handle it right and all that — that was all bullshit. Bottom line is, their number blew our guys out of the water. [Tisch] simply wasn’t going to go for that number. … I think, in a way, Neal Pilson paid a price. Nobody blew the NFL deal. Rupert Murdoch made the NFL happen. That’s just the way it was.
Over at Fox, the celebration took on an air of unreality. A network that half-existed in the minds of many viewers had just landed what Murdoch called, with a tabloid proprietor’s élan, “the crown jewel of all sports programming in the world.” To celebrate, Murdoch summoned his executives to his Manhattan apartment for a champagne toast.
Krieger: Rupert says, “We’re going to my apartment to have drinks.” We had a mini celebration.
Padden: I was there. I remember Mr. Murdoch rubbing his hands together and saying, “OK, now somebody tell me how they play this game!”
Part 2: The Ultimate Free Agent
Sports announcers occasionally swap networks. But when Fox pried the NFL rights away from CBS in December 1993, it created a signing period that was like a wild NBA summer. CBS’s biggest NFL announcers — John Madden, Pat Summerall, Terry Bradshaw — suddenly became free agents.
Madden, who’d worked at CBS since 1979, had a place in American pop culture that was akin to Santa Claus, one colleague observed. He seemed eternally peppy, and his Madden Cruiser bus carried him around him the country. Madden had a video game (then in its fifth edition) and commercials for tough-actin’ Tinactin. But his genius was that he simultaneously made the TV analyst’s job more complex and more accessible than it had ever been before. Madden could explain the fine points of line play and then wax about the lineman’s belly and cut of his pants. Boom!
Madden’s regular-guyness belied just what a sought-after TV star he’d become. Early in 1994, his suitors included Fox’s Rupert Murdoch, ABC’s Bob Iger, and General Electric’s Jack Welch, who controlled NBC. Joe Buck later called Madden the “ultimate free agent.” Lesley Visser compared him to Moby Dick. At the end of the negotiations, Madden didn’t just get more money than any sports announcer ever had. He got a contract that paid him more per year than any player in the NFL.
Richie Zyontz, CBS producer: [Murdoch] came to one of our early seminars. I remember what he said: “If I have to introduce someone new to our country to one person who is uniquely American, it would be John Madden.”
Dick Ebersol, NBC Sports president: He was the first crossover football media star. He wasn’t just men. He was women.
Joe Buck, St. Louis Cardinals announcer: He was — to me at least, because it’s what I do for a living — larger than the game. Even though he said he wasn’t. “I’m just an everyman. I’m just the guy at the bar that you nuzzle up against and you’re elbowing during a big play.” But he wasn’t that. … He was larger than life.
Artie Kempner, CBS director: To this day, John Madden is the best analyst in the business. Here’s why: No matter who you are — Troy Aikman, Jon Gruden, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth — we’re not the reason you tune in to watch games. You watch games or events because of the game or event. But what John Madden did better than anybody is take a shitty event and make it interesting or engaging. You could have a 31–3 game, and John could keep your attention.
Neal Pilson, CBS Sports president: He’s one of the very, very few guys in the history of our business that brought a rating himself. I can give you at least one other, and that was Howard Cosell.
Eric Shanks, CBS broadcast associate: He’s a great observer of people. A guy would walk through the lobby and if his shoelace was tied over here or over here, he’d be like, “Watch out for that guy. He doesn’t do his job very well. If his shoelace is tied in the middle, that’s a guy you want to do business with.” That’s a pretty good rule.
Pete Macheska, CBS associate director: I’ll tell you a story. The Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, their lobby was on the 12th floor. He’d sit in the lobby for hours just watching people. I remember one time we were waiting to go to dinner, and the Rolling Stones were staying there. One guy goes, “Hey, there’s Mick Jagger.” John had no idea who Mick Jagger was. None.
Matt Millen, CBS analyst: Here’s the thing people don’t know about John. John is probably the brightest guy in the room. He just doesn’t want you to know it. He wants you to think he’s this big, lovable dog you can pet.
In Madden, Fox saw the quality it craved most: credibility. The network had promised the NFL and leery reporters that it wouldn’t put Bart Simpson in the booth. Fox had been trying to harvest gravitas from the old-line networks. The same month, Fox offered ABC’s Diane Sawyer more than $7 million a year to host a news show after Sunday football.
But Fox had competition for Madden. NBC and ABC offered to make Madden their no. 1 analyst. Madden’s offers soared past the $2 million per year that sportscaster salaries of that era topped out at. The networks offered sweeteners. Maybe hire Bob Stenner and Sandy Grossman, Madden’s preferred producer and director. Maybe make Madden “worldwide spokesman” for General Electric. Maybe build him a train.
Millen: I’ll never forget the quote he gave me. I said, “John, how it’s going?” He said, “Matt, let me tell you one thing. If you got one person who wants you, you get a job. If you got two people who want you, you get a great deal. And if you have three or more, you get a bonanza.”
Lesley Visser, CBS reporter: Dick Stockton and I, then married, would go to watch a lot of football at John’s apartment at the Dakota. Mostly it was Monday Night Football. One night, John says, “Gotta go now. I’ll tell you about it later.” He left us there. He went to meet Rupert Murdoch.
John Madden, CBS analyst: He invited me over to his apartment to talk to him. I thought, “He’s such an interesting guy that I would like to meet him. I would like to meet him and talk to him. I’m not going to go to Fox, but I’d like to meet him.” So I went to his apartment and we talked. I just found out he was a regular guy. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Barry Frank, agent to John Madden: Murdoch needed John because a lot of people, particularly in the advertising world, thought, “Well, those games will never be the same on Fox.” If John is doing them, they’re the same.
Ebersol: We went along and along. I’m at $4 million of [Jack Welch’s] money. In fact, I said, “Jack, this might be too much, as great as John is.” … Jack said, “No, no, no. I know a way to get him. We make locomotives. We’ll give him his own train.”
Visser: Yes, Dick Ebersol said, “We’ll build you a train car.” And it wasn’t going to be some schlubby thing going to Albany and Kankakee. It would be like one of those Murder on the Orient Express parlor cars. It was going to be glorious.
Frank: They offered him his own train car. That was appealing, but there was only one problem with it. It got you to the city but it didn’t get you to the stadium. He would still have a take a cab or car of some kind to the stadium and back. He knew that was a little bit of a hassle.
Of all the offers placed before him, Madden was intrigued by one from ABC and Monday Night Football. For a guy who commuted by bus (or train), he liked the idea of having his schedule of games set at the beginning of the season, rather than having Fox or NBC suddenly decide that the game of the week was in Seattle.
Chase Carey, Fox Television Group Chairman and CEO: Friday night we got the agreement [for the NFC rights]. … A day or two later, we got a call that John was in deep discussions to go to Monday Night.
Frank: He knew where he wanted to go at that point in time. It was ABC and Monday Night Football. We had a dinner here at my office together and shook hands on a deal for slightly over $2 million. He was very pleased with that, very relaxed and relieved.
Madden: I didn’t agree to anything on Monday Night Football. I think that was Barry thinking that he could do that. That wasn’t what I was thinking. That really wasn’t. I never did commit in any way and I never did say that that was what I wanted to do.
Frank: Monday night we had that dinner. The Wednesday of the same week, I get a call in my office at 9:15 — which is, of course, 6:15 Los Angeles time — from Rupert Murdoch. He said, “What about John Madden? Is he available to do football on Fox?” I said, “Well, actually, no. We just made a deal with ABC for him to do Monday Night Football.” [Murdoch] said, “Do you have anything in writing?” I said, “No.” He said, “Then you don’t have a deal.”
Dennis Swanson, ABC Sports president: God bless Barry. Barry’s not bashful. He had all the leverage.
Frank: [Murdoch] said, “What would it take to get John Madden?” I kind of opened my mind to the possibility. I thought, “I’m going to think of the biggest number I can and throw it on the table and see what happens.” I said, “$10 million.” He said, “I’ll give you 8.”
Madden: Fox didn’t have sports. They were going to go after sports. Instead of starting with a more minor sport, I was so impressed that [Murdoch] went for the big apple. He went for the biggest thing there, which is the NFL — the NFL on CBS, the NFC. … I’m happy as hell that I made that decision to go to Fox.
David Hill, Fox Sports president: Madden became absolutely powerful and vital.
Zyontz: John was football for Fox. He set the tone. He put us on the map. That’s obviously what Murdoch wanted, and he paid a ton of money. John was worth every penny because he gave us instant credibility.
Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner: If you make that kind of commitment [for the NFC rights], you’ll go after and get the best. That’s peanuts. That’s arguing about the price of the seasoning after you’ve paid a fortune for the steak.
Frank: I had to call ABC. Bob Iger said, “Come over here. I want to talk to you.” I went over there. I had a little conversation with him. It was not going well. He was very upset. I said, “Sorry, it’s not my money. It’s John’s money. We don’t have a deal. He wants to take this.” He said, “But you shook my hand.” I said, “Yeah, but we don’t have a deal.” … Iger never spoke to me until Jim McKay’s death. We were both at the funeral. He walked over to me and said, “OK, enough’s enough. This went on long enough. Let’s shake hands and start over again.” I said, “I’m happy to do that.” We were friends again.
In TV land, Pat Summerall was Madden’s tight-lipped, inseparable partner. “Pat wears well,” Madden said. But in 1993, the two nearly split up. Where Madden had the world at his feet, Summerall’s life was just regaining a measure of stability.
The year before, at the Masters, Summerall woke up with his head over the toilet vomiting the vodka he’d drank the night before. He glanced in the mirror and saw a face that “looked like a monster.” Summerall’s performance at the Masters was so shaky that CBS executives thought of yanking him off the air. After the tournament, a company plane ferried him to the Betty Ford Center.
By 1993, Summerall had gotten clean. But now he was facing a professional crisis. He didn’t know if he’d have a job.
Bob Rosen, agent to Pat Summerall: [He felt] panic — pure panic. Where was he going to go other than Fox, if Fox would have him? He was on top of the world at CBS, and suddenly his world collapsed under him.
Bob Stenner, CBS producer: People were always saying “John and Pat.” I made it a point to say “Pat and John.” Did it bother him? I don’t know. Maybe. John is just a bigger figure, a bigger guy. I can’t tell you how many people have asked me, “What kind of guy is John?” They very rarely ask about Pat.
Thom Brennaman, WGN play-by-play announcer: Just so subtle. Simple. Effective. Spot on. Without the trap that so many of us are guilty of falling into of never stopping talking. He was so understated.
Buck: Pat’s on the Mount Rushmore of the greatest of all time. You can compare him to the great artists that were minimalists. “Montana. Rice. Touchdown.” When Troy, Cris, and I took over for Pat and John, I tried to do my version of Pat Summerall, which made me sound boring. I didn’t fall into the trap of trying to sound like my dad. I didn’t fall into the trap of trying to do anything as anybody else. But when the three of us stepped into that void, that void felt so big that I tried to imitate Pat. It didn’t work.
Rosen: Hill wanted John Madden. I convinced him that if he hired Pat Summerall and his director, Sandy Grossman, that would give him instant credibility and I’m sure would drive Madden to Fox as well. I made Pat’s deal and I made Sandy Grossman’s deal. Madden, sure enough, came right behind.
Zyontz: Pat Summerall at CBS read that Sunday-night promo for 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote with that pregnant pause that became so famous. At CBS, he’s promoting classic shows. He comes to Fox and he’s reading promos for When Animals Attack!
Kevin Harlan, Kansas City Chiefs announcer: They would do this whip-around in the pregame show. This particular Sunday, Summerall is throwing to me. He says, “That’s the story in Chicago. Let’s go to Green Bay and Bryan Harlan.” Bryan is my brother, the Chicago PR director. He didn’t know who I was! I looked into the camera, and I go, “Oh, shit.” But I didn’t say one word. You know what? Pat Summerall was throwing it to me. That was all that mattered.
After Madden and Summerall signed, Madden joked that Rupert Murdoch’s nascent sports division shouldn’t be called Fox Sports. It should be called Fox Sport. Yet Fox Sports offered an opportunity. Freed from a house style of production, Murdoch could create a division that existed almost in artistic opposition to the Big Three networks, like The Simpsons had to The Cosby Show.
To run Fox Sports, Murdoch hired Sky Sports head David Hill. Hill had created sports divisions in Australia and in the U.K. His Australianness was the subject of cheap laughs at other networks. (“It’s like I’ve come from Mars,” he grumbled.) But Hill brought the just outsider’s perspective Murdoch wanted. Hill insisted that sports was not a nerdy, self-contained universe. Sports was a piece of — and should speak directly to — the larger world of entertainment.
Hill: I felt that U.S. sports production at that stage was taking itself so seriously that they’d lost the plot. … I’m not a sports producer. I’m a television producer. And, to me, there is a huge difference.
Jimmy Johnson, Fox NFL Sunday analyst: I said, “David, do I take a telestrator and draw something?” He said, “Telestrator? We’re not in the X’s-and-O’s business. We’re in the entertainment business!”
James Brown, CBS play-by-play announcer: He told us the one thing he wanted to do — our mantra — was “sugarcoat the information pill.” Make it fun. Don’t bore me with esoteric talk.
George Krieger, Fox Sports executive vice president: We kidded David that he had 100 ideas a year, and the trick was to pick the six you could do on this earth.
Tracy Dolgin, Fox Sports executive vice president: Some worked. Some, like the glowing puck, were complete flameouts. They were awful. But we tried it. Nobody second-guessed or paid a price.
Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the NFL: David Hill was a provocateur when it came to sports programming. … I don’t think there was that kind of innovation since ABC innovated with the Monday Night package, with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. From that point forward, there was almost a formulaic approach. I’m sure some of the networks would disagree with that. But that’s the way we viewed it. Fox was not formulaic. They were just the opposite.
Zyontz: The Rangers win the Stanley Cup in June 1994, and the next day I’m on a plane to meet David Hill. He asked me to produce a preseason NFL special. I figure, I worked on these types of shows before. Get a bunch of football analysts, sit around talking about the season, throw in some opinions — poof, you’ve got a show. With David, he’s talking about having a comedian. I’m hired to produce football games and all of a sudden I’m on the phone with Sinbad’s agent.
Madden: When you first go in there and you’re a traditionalist like I am — I’m a football traditionalist — you think, “Oh, this guy David Hill is going to screw this game up.” He was just the opposite. For that situation, he was the perfect guy.
Hill: John Madden paid me the highest compliment. He said I was the only television executive he’s ever met that didn’t look constipated.
For his lieutenant, Hill turned to CBS’s Ed Goren, who knew American football and American announcers and became a hedge to Hill’s wackiest ideas.
Ed Goren, Fox Sports executive producer and executive vice president: In January, I get a call from George Krieger, who asks me if I would like to come to L.A. to interview for the executive producer job at Fox Sports. I said, “When do you propose this?” He said, “Next Tuesday.” I said, “Well, I have a little bit of a problem. I have to be Dallas in Monday with the CBS entourage to do a survey for the [NFC] championship game. I’ve got to find a reason why I’m not flying back to New York with them.” I see Rich Dalrymple, Jimmy Johnson’s right-hand guy and Jerry Jones’s guy. I go, “Rich, if anybody asks, I’m having dinner with you and Coach Johnson.”
Rosen: There was a guy at the NFL, Val Pinchbeck, who recommended Eddie highly to Fox at the same time I was pushing David to hire Eddie. I guess it was a combination of Val and me that convinced David to hire him.
Kempner: As important as David was — and he certainly was the most important person we had — Ed Goren was a very close no. 2. He kept us from fucking up. Ed was like, the director of not fucking up.
Dolgin: David was this crazy Australian guy, and all he wanted to do was do it differently, make it more entertaining, and push the envelope. Ed was a traditional sports guy. David dragged him — not kicking and screaming at all, because Ed’s the greatest guy in the world — out of his comfort zone. They made a really interesting yin and yang.
Harlan: Hill said, “Why not?” Ed said, “Because … ”
Fox had spent more than $1 billion to televise NFL games. But Hill thought Cowboys-49ers would look only incrementally different than it had on CBS. A pregame show, on the other hand, was a place where Hill could have a free hand.
Shanks: The place where you get to make your own brand is in the pregames. That’s where you start from scratch. From the A block through the F’s, everything you put on the screen is what you want it to be.
Hill: If you’re producing a game, you’re reacting. The stage is set. It’s cast. It’s costumed. It’s lit. It’s choreographed. What you do is you react to what’s happening in front of you. A totally different world to a pregame show, where you’re presented with a black box.
Joel Feld, Fox producer: CBS and NBC had half-hour pregame shows. David wanted to do an hour. It was, hell, what do you do in an hour?
Hill: I could never understand this. There’d be journalists writing, for magazines and newspapers, pages and pages and pages of news about the NFL. And from their ivory tower, they’re saying, “Oh, they’ll never be able to fill up an hour with material.”
Scott Ackerson, Fox NFL Sunday coordinating producer: I jokingly said to Rupert Murdoch at one point, “When all is said is done, the pregame show’s going to come on at 6 a.m. That’s going to happen.” It was a joke, but now it’s reality.
In hiring Terry Bradshaw, Hill got a sportscaster who was like a combination of Fox characters Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Fire Marshal Bill. At 44, Bradshaw had called the B game at CBS with Verne Lundquist. Then he asked for and got a spot on CBS’s pregame show. It was a typical move. For all his shambling dopiness on TV, Bradshaw was enormously ambitious.
Verne Lundquist, CBS play-by-play announcer: Here was the thing that drove him crazy. He knew then, back in ’88 or ’89, that John and Pat were so popular — especially John — that he was never going to ascend to the no. 1 spot. He’d do anything and everything he could to separate himself from John’s presentation. John had the telestrator. We carried around what we called the Bradshaw Blackboard.”
Hill: A lot of people said, “Don’t hire Terry Bradshaw. He’s a doofus.” I was watching, by sheer happenstance, the very last CBS pregame show. Terry was on with Greg Gumbel. Terry got up from the desk, and he walked to where the Telestrator area was. And it wasn’t a walk. It was a strut. I thought, “Ah, shit, you’ll do me, boy!”
Howie Long, Fox NFL Sunday analyst: Jimmy and I do a lot more writing. Terry’s off the cuff.
Terry Bradshaw, Fox NFL Sunday analyst: That’s not true. I’m extremely well-prepared.
Long: It’s contrived dishevelment.
Buck: To me, his hiring was as big as John’s. He got made fun of by Hollywood Henderson, like he’s some idiot that can’t spell “cat.” He’s so much smarter than anybody has any idea. He’s just played that role to the hilt. He’s laughed all the way to the bank.
At the ’94 Super Bowl, Bradshaw auditioned Howie Long, who’d just retired from the Raiders.
Bradshaw: This is our Einstein. He came in with a stack of notes. I’m like, “We’re just doing an audition, dude.”
Long: No one said anything to me. I went in just overprepared for everything.
Hill: Howie’s audition was dreadful. He was starting to act. He was going to do Broken Arrow with John Travolta. He was acting like what he felt a sports analyst should be. I said, “Look, here’s what we’re going to do. Come back tomorrow. Get the stick out of your ass. And just be Howie Long.”
Goren: He comes back next day. I look at Howie and say, “Ready to go? Show me something today.” And I slapped him in the face. Terry jumps out of his seat, hugs me, and goes, “Ed, I didn’t know you did ’roids!”
Ackerson: Howie wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to say anything wrong about football, because he really cared about that. The way we got it out of him was doing live television.
Long: When I first got there, I was really still a player. You’re wired a little bit tighter, and it takes a while to kind of get that out. Because the solution [in television] is not kicking someone’s ass. Whereas in the business we were in before, if you had a problem, I’d work it out in my head what period I was going to kick your ass into next morning. In our world, you didn’t send an email. You didn’t send a memo. You didn’t talk to your agent. … The point is, it takes a while to adjust to it.
In March 1994, Fox executives went to the NFL meetings. They watched Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, the owner and coach who’d won the last two Super Bowls, face off in an alcohol-fueled confrontation. Jones, who’d helped deliver the NFL rights to Fox, was now handing the network one of its signature stars.
Krieger: Eddie, David, and I were there the night of the screaming match. It was around 11:30, and we’d already had several cocktails. Through these little trees or short shrubs we heard fucking screaming going on. Eddie gets up, peeks behind the thing, and goes, “Holy shit, they’re going at it.”
Hill: Everyone was terribly drunk. Jerry had fired Jimmy.
Goren: [Hill and I] were both in New York watching ESPN coverage of the Jimmy-Jerry divorce. I turn to Hill and say, “I’ll see you in a couple of days.” He doesn’t skip a beat. He goes, “Call me from Dallas.” With anyone else, I’d have been asked, “What are you going to offer him? Where are we going to get the money?” He was just like, “Call me from Dallas.”
Other than maybe Madden, Johnson was the single sharpest negotiator Fox squared off with. Johnson knew he’d do TV only until he took another coaching job. With the leverage of a competing offer from ESPN, Johnson told Fox he didn’t want to come to Los Angeles every week like Bradshaw and Long. A few weeks a year, Fox cameras would have to come to him, at his home in South Florida.
Johnson: I said, “Well, listen. I’ll go to L.A. like 10 times.”
Long: This is before they’d done the Prince and the Michael Jackson hologram. If it could have been an option, he would have suggested that.
Goren: I get a call from Jimmy where he said, “Ed, your people haven’t really come up with a decent deal. I’m going to sign a deal with ESPN.” I think it’s fair to say I went postal on him. He says, “On top of this, I really don’t know if I want to fly out to L.A. every week. People at ESPN are telling me I can be on their pregame show at my house by the pool.” I went postal again. I said, “It’s great TV chemistry to have four guys freezing their butts off in Bristol while you’re poolside!” He says, “You don’t have the money.” I said, “Give me the rest of today.”
Krieger: Eddie really wanted Jimmy. I knew Jimmy would be a real catalyst, a foil for Terry. [Fox sales executive] Jon Nesvig, he’s visiting auto advertisers. I said, “Hey, could we somehow get an extra $600,000 to afford to hire Jimmy Johnson?” He says, “Jimmy Johnson? That would be incredible! I’ll get the guys from Dr. Pepper in Dallas.” Jon Nesvig is the real reason Jimmy Johnson is at Fox.
Ackerson: I knew when I worked with him in his first stint that he was definitely going back to coaching. We had a really honest conversation about it. I told him, “I don’t want to be in a position where I’m being lied to. If you can’t say anything, you can’t say anything. But I don’t want to be Bill Parcells’d. That kills us. It kills our credibility.” To his credit, he was great about it.
Hill: There were very few if any real personalities at this network. In ’94, ’95, ’96, it was Terry, Howie, and Jimmy and John and Pat. They were Fox until the growth of Fox News, which was much later, and then Simon Cowell with American Idol.
Buck: That pregame show was David Hill’s baby. Those guys are the best of friends. I was blown away by how much they really, really love each other. It’s not like four different limos going off in four different directions. They just want to be together.
Hill: The three actually liked and respected each other. Everyone calls it chemistry. It’s not chemistry at all. It’s friendship.
Part 3: The Expansion Franchise
In 1994, Fox executives liked to call their new division an “expansion franchise.” But the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones saw another metaphor. Five years earlier, the fortune Jones paid to buy into the NFL made him desperate to succeed. Jones thought Fox paying $1.6 billion for the NFC rights would put the network in a similar mind-set, toggling between creativity and fear of disaster.
David Hill, president of Fox Sports: As an Australian out of London doing NFL in that first year, I kept waiting for the bucket of shit to fall on me. There was a guy out of Boston, [Will] McDonough, who said, “David Hill doesn’t know if a football’s puffed or stuffed.” I said, “Guilty as charged.”
Bob Stenner, Fox producer: Fox had no credentials when it came to covering live sports. None.
Tracy Dolgin, Fox Sports executive vice president: If you think about it now looking back, it’s a crazy bet. You get the rights and then you don’t have the infrastructure to do it.
Dick Stockton, Fox play-by-play announcer: I said [to Richie Zyontz], “What’s going on?” He said, “Well, it’s kind of weird. One day they buy a camera. The next day they buy a tape machine. And the next day they buy a headset.” It sounded like they were buying one piece of equipment each day.
George Krieger, Fox Sports executive vice president: In January, we’re at [a TV executives conference] in Miami. They had this enormous earthquake in Los Angeles. All of a sudden, we look at each other like, Man, if this happened on a Sunday, we would be fucked beyond belief.
Vince Wladika, Fox Sports director of media relations: [Publicist] Lou D’Ermilio and I had to go to training on how to take over the network if there was an earthquake in L.A. There was this control room, and should something like that happen, D’Ermilio and I had all these codes to plug in to take over the network and reroute stuff to certain local stations to stay on the air. Think about that. D’Ermilio and I sitting there on a Sunday, worrying that if an earthquake destroyed Fox L.A., we have to take over the network to keep the NFL on the air. That’s what you call growing pains.
Paul Tagliabue, NFL commissioner: What I remember most vividly is a phone call I got from Rupert after they had the package. He said, “My people have asked me to call you to tell you that there are certain games that we consider to be ours as part of this new package.” … He didn’t say “games.” He said “there are certain matches.” I said, “Well, what are the matches that you’re talking about?” He said, “Dammit, I had a notecard here listing the matches but I can’t find it. I’ll have to get back to you.”
John Madden, Fox analyst: Somewhere in everyone’s life … you ought to be with a startup. If you’re with a startup that’s well funded, it’s going to be fun. Because you start off with a clean piece of paper.
Joe Buck, Fox play-by-play announcer: It didn’t feel networky to me back then. It never has. I felt if I had an issue or if I was struggling or if I was doing well, they let me know where I stood at the time. It was never like a guessing game. Do they like me? Do they think I’m OK? It was just kind of constantly building me up.
Richie Zyontz, Fox producer: It was like Animal House with the two fraternities. The fraternity with Neidermeyer was CBS. We got to Fox and all of a sudden it’s Belushi crushing a can over his head.
Dolgin: From the day we got the NFL rights, we were probably together on average 16 hours a day, seven days a week. We were working literally around the clock because we were trying to build this network from nothing. Whenever we finished, we didn’t go home. We set up a poker table in one of the conference rooms. We’d play poker all night. This was a different era. There was a lot of drinking. As David used to say, “All my good ideas came with a bottle of merlot.”
Hill: I feel that one of the reasons for the success of Fox Sports in that first year was that I never got a chance to second-guess myself.
In its first year, Fox executives tried to hedge between new stuff they hoped would blow football fans’ minds and comfort food that would seem reassuring and familiar. After signing Pat Summerall and John Madden, Fox picked a no. 2 team in their image. Dick Stockton started calling games at CBS in 1968. His new partner was Matt Millen, a former Raiders linebacker, who was known as a “baby Madden” at CBS. While Madden negotiated his own deal with Fox, Millen wondered whether his pal could get him a job.
Matt Millen, Fox analyst: He’s the king, man. I’m sitting there like, “Hey, throw me a scrap.” He kind of got a little quiet until he signed and then he said, “Look, you’re going to be fine.” I took his word for it. And they signed me right away.
Krieger: Matt was the next Madden. [Dick] Ebersol wanted him and thought he had him signed. I called Matt and said, “How can we not have you on Fox?” He said, “Call my agent back.” He wanted to be where Madden was. He wanted to be on the NFC. I got him a little more money, enough to have Matt come over. I got a nasty call from Ebersol later.
Stockton: He knew what he wanted to say about football. He’d see six things or seven things in a play and say, “Hey, Dick, did you see that?!” I’d say, “Yes, I did!” I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no clue.
Zyontz: There was a way about Matt. He never took a note. He barely showed up with a toothbrush for the weekend. He traveled with Zubaz and a pair of sneakers.
Stockton: They needed a no. 2 guy behind Pat. I was the guy that was going to be earmarked for that role. … I think if you’re worth your salt in this business as a play-by-play announcer, you have to do the NFL. You have to be there on Sunday to do the NFL.
Kempner: It was a rebirth for Dick. He’d been shitted on at CBS. Dick was persona non grata. He was working with Anthony Muñoz on the sixth or seventh team.
Dolgin: You know Eric Shanks, now the president of Fox Sports, was a graphics producer in the truck?
Eric Shanks, Fox broadcast associate: They said, “One of your jobs is you have to go around and pick up the talent.” Dick lives in a building in New York City. So the day before, I do a dry run. I get in my rental car. I go from my hotel and find his building and drive up into it. Then I drive all the way out to the stadium, right. [The next day] I’m supposed to pick him up maybe at 8 a.m for a 1:00 game. I pull up at 7:45. I go in and I use the house phone. I said, “Mr. Stockton, this is your B.A., Eric. I’m here to pick you up.” He goes, “Eric, it’s only a story if you’re not here.”
Having signed another network’s stars, Fox now wanted to create its own. The play-by-play announcers it picked almost could have walked off the set of a Fox teen dramedy. Joe Buck was 25 when he called his first Fox game. Kenny Albert was 26. Thom Brennaman was 30. Kevin Harlan, the grand old man of the bunch, was 34. Three of them had fathers who were famous sports announcers; Harlan’s dad was president of the Green Bay Packers. They were dubbed “The Lucky Sperm Club.”
Buck, who was an announcer with the St. Louis Cardinals, had never called a football game. When Fox asked him to audition, he had no idea he was in the running for a job. Buck later found out that his mother, Carole, had given Ed Goren’s wife a tape of his work.
Buck: A VHS tape. Which would have sent my dad into the stratosphere. He would have been so mad. I was in spring training. My dad got a VHS copy of a Saints-Eagles game so he and I could sit in the living room of his rented spring-training home and do football. That’s the only time we ever sat down together and he was like, “No, don’t do it that way. You’re doing radio. You’re doing too much.” When I sat down for the real thing the next day in L.A., it was a bit intimidating. But it was also like, “All right, I just did this with my dad. I can do this with Tim Green.”
Krieger: We gave him a real shitty game, Bears vs. somebody, that ended up 9–6. We wanted to see how he’d do in a horrible game, because he’d have to work harder.
Buck: In some ways, probably the biggest performance I’ve ever given was doing well at that audition. And I knew it was going well. Ten minutes in, I was like, “All right, I got this.” Not that I got the job, but that I’m representing myself well. Ed Goren or George Krieger walked up to me and said, “We’re going to be offering you a job. Do you have an agent?” I was like, “What? No, I don’t have an agent.” I went back [to spring training] and my mom and dad met me at the airport. They’re like, “How’d it go?” I said, “I think I got the job.” I’d never seen my dad so proud.
Hill: Joe’s background is impeccable. His training is impeccable. The way he does his homework is impeccable. But the way he uses the language — his pausing, his timbre — it’s a dream.
Buck: Had I screwed up that interview, I don’t know that I’d be sitting here talking to you. Certainly I wouldn’t have been hired then. I don’t know, I might have been doing the Cardinals the rest of my life. Which would have been fine, but a different life.
Thom Brennaman, Fox play-by-play announcer: Of all the younger announcers that they hired that first year, I probably had the most high-profile job. I was announcing the Chicago Cubs games on WGN Superstation. I had a representative at the time. He called me and said, “Fox would like you to come in for an audition.” I asked the question, “What is Fox?” You couple that with the fact that at that time I had never announced a football game of any kind in my life. If there’s anybody on the planet that should not be getting called for an audition with Fox — whatever Fox is — it would have been me.
Kenny Albert, Fox play-by-play announcer: Back then, all the network announcers seemed so much older. They were in their 40s and 50s. I was about to turn 26. Believe it or not, George Krieger had this son who was a lacrosse player. I’d done a couple of lacrosse games for Home Team Sports in Washington, D.C. Maybe two or three at most. Apparently, [Krieger] knew somebody there, and he wanted to get copies of these lacrosse games for his son to watch. They were the games I was announcing. The story he told me later was that was one of the initial reasons I was brought in for the football audition.
Kevin Harlan, Fox play-by-play announcer: At the AFC championship game in Buffalo, Joe Montana’s first year in Kansas City, I had just finished interviewing Marty Schottenheimer in the Chiefs locker room. Carl Peterson and Steve Sabol of NFL Films are walking in my same direction. As I approach them, Carl said, “Steve was just telling me this great story about how Fox contacted him.” I said, “Really?” Steve said, “They asked me to name the top three radio play-by-play guys in the NFL and you’re at the top of the list.” I was doing the Minnesota Timberwolves. I was doing ESPN college football and I was doing the Chiefs on the radio. But a chance to go to a network at my age was a pretty amazing thing. If I really wanted to see how far I could go, I had to accept that job.
Krieger: We saddled Kevin Harlan with Jerry Glanville. I love the coach. But he crazy.
Jerry Glanville, Fox analyst: Kevin Harlan talks like you and me when we’re talking [off the air]. Then the very first game, the light comes on and I heard, “WELCOME TO SOLDIER FIELD.” I thought somebody came in the booth. I thought Darth Vader joined us.
Buck: [Fox] had granite with the first two teams. Then it was like, let’s see who’s good among these young guys. We’re not going to do: “Everybody just trade network blazers and move one channel over to your left.”
Albert: I remember a dinner that June. Fifteen or 20 of us somewhere in Beverly Hills. All of us youngsters, we’re sitting at one end of the table. These legends, Madden and Summerall, we’re listening to their stories and soaking it in. They brought the menus around and we ordered appetizers. I’ll never forget hearing [Summerall] say, “I’ll have the Kick-Ass Chili.”
Brennaman: I don’t know Jim Lampley. I’ve never met him. I’ve always really admired his work. He made a comment about two weeks before the NFL season started that first year. He basically took a shot at a lot of us young guys. [Lampley to USA Today: “This is second-generation stuff. Geez, if my 3-year-old son, Aaron, turns up at Fox, we’re all old.”] I know anybody that tries to do anything well in their lives, if you have somebody who’s telling you you aren’t good enough at it, you got two options. You can lay down. Or you can try to go get ’em. I’ve never forgotten those comments he made a long time ago.
David Hill’s most controversial idea about the NFL was his simplest: He thought the score and clock should have a permanent home on the screen — a feature that became known as the “Fox Box.” A noisy group of critics and rival executives thought the Fox Box was a terrible idea. It would clutter the screen and drive people away from blowouts. But Hill was convinced, because he’d created a proto–Fox Box after a frustrating afternoon watching soccer in the U.K.
Hill: We’d been out walking our dogs. We’d come in, got a cup of tea, and switched the BBC on. I watched the game for a good 15 minutes. I don’t know what the score is. I’m thinking to myself, “Shit, I’d really like to know what the score is.” So I thought, “That’s easy. On a chyron, I’ll just put it up in the corner.” So I did it.
Madden: Instead of saying, “No, that’s a stupid idea, we got other things we have to do,” he said, “If the score and the time is the most important thing, why don’t we just put it up and leave it there?” That’s where the Fox Box came from. That was David Hill.
Dolgin: All the networks told us, “You’re screwing this up. You’re idiots to do this.”
Albert: The thought was, some networks won’t leave the time and score up because it’s a blowout and they didn’t want you to know it’s a blowout.
Lou D’Ermilio, Fox manager of media relations: I remember early in the season just suggesting to a reporter that if they had more than one TV in the house, and you had a game on NBC and a game on Fox at the same time, put ’em both on, leave the room, and then go back. Then tell me the box isn’t the first thing you look at to see what the score is and how much time is left. That’s how I tried to turn people.
Krieger: The key thing is we had to get the data from the scoreboards to power the Fox Box.
Jerry Gepner, Fox Sports senior vice president of field operations and engineering: You can’t imagine a piece of equipment today without an Ethernet jack or data port. This is ’94. Before the game, a team of very young and eager techs would show up at your football stadium. They would ask you to go to your multi-million-dollar scoreboard and start soldering some wires into the back of your scoreboard. If it went well, we’d get data back to the trucks. If it went better, the data was in a format we could understand. And if we got really lucky, it showed up on the screen.
Hill: I got five death threats. The legal department got five letters that were neatly typed saying, “You’re a foreigner. You’re fucking with football. We know where you live and we’re going to kill you and your family.” I ended up having a meeting with two guys from the FBI and two guys from the LAPD threat squad. I said, “What can you do?” They said, “Here is a permit for you to carry a concealed [weapon].” I said, “Well, you hang on to that because I like the number of toes that I have.”
Goren: I come back to L.A., to the Sunset office, on Monday. There’s a phone message from one of our fine viewers in the Bay Area, who felt he could not watch the 49ers game because that damn box on the screen was distracting. “Either get rid of the box or I’ll find you!” A few days later, the window in my office was shot out. We went to the police, who told us, “No, it’s not the guy in San Francisco. It’s just a tough neighborhood.”
Wladika: I remember Dick Ebersol saying “I’m not giving my viewers a roadmap to turn the channel elsewhere.”
Hill: Dick went on and on and on, aided and abetted by Rudy Martzke. They had based their argument on the assumption that the sports fan had an IQ of 3. That was, if the sports fan was going to switch on and saw the score and it was seemingly a blowout, they’d switch off again. It’s like, well, you’re going to put the score up every three or four minutes, and if that’s the case, you’re going to lose them anyway.
Dick Ebersol, NBC sports president: I don’t know how many times I have to say it. But of course he was right. It made me look foolish, because I was always somebody who was talking about how important the viewer was.
Three months from air, Fox didn’t have a pregame host, a role Hill saw as an everyman among the stars. Fox inquired about ESPN’s Mike Tirico and John Saunders. But they wound up hiring CBS’s James Brown. At 43, Brown was announcing lower-rung NFL games and manning the studio during March Madness. He was a very different guy than his future Fox NFL Sunday colleagues. They liked to crush beers. Brown, who later became an ordained minister, liked to tell friends, “Have a blessed day!”
James Brown, Fox NFL Sunday host: I certainly was not their first choice — that I know. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Very honestly and transparently, I just prayed and said, “Look, Lord, I’ve done everything I can. At this point, it’s in Your hands what’s going to happen.” I was hoping to get on board at Fox as one of their fourth- or fifth-team announcers.
Ed Goren, Fox Sports executive producer and executive vice president: We have Terry, Howie, and Jimmy. It’s June. We still don’t have a host. David was concerned that we can’t be CBS West. I said, “Well, I have a guy who’s really under the radar who I think would be a great fit. A year from now, nobody’ll remember he ever was at CBS.” We’re a little desperate, and David says, “Go ahead.”
Krieger: It was helpful that James was not only a person of intellectual substance. He was a big, tall, ex-basketball guy. That helped with Bradshaw, who’s sneaky big, and Howie, who’s just fucking big.
Brown: I never, ever made it about myself. It was always about them. … I made it a point to understand what their strengths and weaknesses were, and to play to that. To never have my guys look bad about something.
Scott Ackerson, Fox NFL Sunday coordinating producer: I go to Washington to meet JB. We’re meeting at this IHOP. A guy comes up to him and says, “Are you James Brown of Channel 9?” He said yes. The guy says, “OK, do you know how to get to Redskins training camp?” JB goes, “Why don’t I give you my cellphone number? Give me a call after this meeting and I’ll make sure you get everything taken care of.” I’m thinking, “Wow, this guy who’s going to be hosting the show has given this random guy his cellphone.”
Dolgin: That first Thanksgiving, we all had Thanksgiving dinner together, because we had a Thursday game. It was Terry, Howie, Jimmy. My son was like 4 months old. JB, the nicest guy in the world, sees my wife looking miserable. She’s there’s holding my 4-month-old son. JB walks over. He takes my son, puts him in his arms, and the entire Thanksgiving meal is holding my baby son, so my wife can sit and eat.
In 1994, pregame segments weren’t exactly ripped from the pages of Pro Football Focus. But David Hill thought pregames had so much esoteric football talk that they’d lost the audience. Anticipating changes that would sweep over ESPN chat shows and sports radio, Hill scolded the cast of Fox NFL Sunday for doing two football segments in a row. For his show, Hill wanted something more like football-scented entertainment.
Hill: When you analyze what it is we do, sports is a cure for boredom.
Howie Long, Fox NFL Sunday analyst: Nobody remembers anything you say about football. What they remember is the gaffes, the jokes, the natural camaraderie that the group has.
Ackerson: Terry at one time said, “Hey, Scott, I want to show this play. I want to show the all-22 camera angle.” I’m like, “No, we’re not doing that.” He’s like, “Why?” I said, “Terry, we’re never going to break out the Telestrator on a pregame show. People don’t understand it, and for the most part, people don’t care.”
Goren: For four months, we started with breakfast every day and shut down some bar late at night. We’d come in the next morning with wine-stained napkins with notes written on them. One of my cocktail napkins said, “I want to put a football field in our studio so that Bradshaw could do demonstrations.”
Hill: Everything’s about educating the viewer. The football field was about taking a complex move and breaking it down into component parts so that a child of 12 or 10 could fully understand what was being said.
Goren: I said to David, “I have another note here. I want a skybox in our studio.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I was probably over-served.
Hill: We’d seen the Lakers with Jack Nicholson. We thought, “Let’s do the same thing. Let’s have all the stars in Hollywood come out and sit in the skybox. We’ll have Johnny Depp, you name it, sitting there watching the football and interacting with Howie and Terry.” Fucking disaster! No one wanted to come out.
Brown: The initial plan was going to have what they call a “presenter” to handle the news of the day, seated at a distant desk. I got the impression it was kind of like a European presentation. They would have Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, and Jimmy Johnson at the other desk, talking football. I remember Sandy Grossman, God bless him, telling David Hill and others that might well make sense on paper as a plan. But the look of it optically — it would give the impression that you’ve got the African American sitting off to the side. Ultimately it did change, and they just put all four of us at the desk.
Sometime later, Fox NFL Sunday became known as the show where the hosts fought to laugh loudest at each other’s jokes. But in Year 1, there wasn’t an excess of bonhomie. Jimmy Johnson, who’d just left the NFL and knew he’d go back, still had the qualities of a coach: inward-looking, slightly touchy.
Terry Bradshaw, Fox NFL Sunday analyst: He was still coachin’ and we knew it.
Jimmy Johnson, Fox NFL Sunday analyst: I was a little bit guarded.
Long: He was a miserable son of a bitch.
Bradshaw: It didn’t start off good. … One day on the set, Jimmy’s talking. At the time, it was Jimmy, Howie, and me.
Long: [A producer] had just changed the order in my ear of who’s going to talk. I whispered, “It’s Jimmy, you, and me.”
Bradshaw: Jimmy thought Howie was making fun of him. So when the show was over, the little prick got up and banty-roostered back to his dressing room. Howie and I are like, “What did we do?” I felt as though at that time that I was the leader of the bunch. I feel like I probably still am. I go back to his dressing room. I said, “Hey, Coach, I don’t know what we did. But I want to apologize.” He was in no mood to hear my shit.
Johnson: I was on edge. I’d just got through winning two Super Bowls and thinking maybe I was going to go back. So I wasn’t going to take any shit from anybody. I remember one time we had the Christmas show and had the little choir up there. I had actually rehearsed what I was going to say. I was going to really try to drive a point home. We were going to go to the Christmas carol–type thing right after my statement. I’m looking right into the camera and I’m really serious, I’m starting to really make my point. Terry got up — he walked in front of the camera to the choir.
Bradshaw: That’s the only way I could get to the choir.
Johnson: I was so pissed. I was wanting to really make a point. Because of my circumstance, we couldn’t have the same chemistry we had once I came back [from coaching the Dolphins].
Long: Early in the first year, we’re at a bar. [Terry’s] talking all kinds of shit to me. He says, “You sorry son of a bitch. You don’t even have a drink.” So I tell the waitress, “You bring him tequila. You bring me water.” We’re 14 shots into it. [The next morning], we’re doing a hit on Good Morning Fox at 5 a.m. by the pool. And as they’re getting ready to go “five, four, three, two, one,” I turn to him and said, “Hey, by the way, motherfucker, that was water last night.”
Bradshaw: I was miserable. I mean, that’s just wrong.
Brown: On the set live, Terry had said something in banter with Howie that referenced [something] Howie had shared with him in our off-camera bonding time. Howie gave Terry one of those unmistakable looks like, “You didn’t go there.” Terry did not miss a beat. He looked at Howie and said something like, “Oh, so you’re upset with me, is that right? Let me tell you something, big boy. I promise you this one thing. If you ever decide to hit me, I will bleed all over you!”
Long: You know how many times he’s said, “You want to hit me, big boy?”
Ebersol: From the beginning, I was jealous. It was Hilly’s magic. It was so much more than football. I mean this as a compliment: [The hosts] were like live-action figures who had the ability to be cartoonish at the same time.
Using Madden and Summerall as their center of gravity, Hill and his team sloughed off ideas that brought Fox closer to TV and movies than they did to conventional sports TV. An audio sub-mixer so more game sounds could be captured. Sound effects on the “wipes.” On a visit to an amusement park, Hill got an idea for Fox’s theme song.
Hill: I force all my kids to ride roller coasters. There was this roller coaster that had gone in at Six Flags called the Batman ride. They kept playing the theme from Batman the movie. I thinking, That’s in a minor key. That’s interesting. Most sports themes are major keys and to me they’ve always sounded like a police chase theme gone wrong. I rang George [Greenberg] when I got home that night and said, “I got it for the music. The concept is, Batman has got a football team.” That was the influence where the music came from.
Dolgin: Pretty early in the process, I came up with this tagline that became sort of the mantra of everything we did. It was, “Same Game, New Attitude.”
Shanks: At the end of the day, it gave you the license and the freedom to do anything. “Why are you doing this?” “Fuckin’ Fox attitude, man. That’s why.”
Goren: I remember one meeting where we’re going through the marketing plan. You’ve got to understand that most people in the country haven’t watched the Fox network. How are they going to get them to watch football? In the meeting, Rupert says, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we need to spend more money on the marketing.” Which I’m sure didn’t happen very often.
Dolgin: I’ll never forget sitting down with Madden and basically going over this idea I had for a script. We did a movie trailer — it played in movie theaters. It was a Western. “There’s a new sheriff in town! Fox is coming to football!” Madden wouldn’t dress up like a cowboy. Summerall did. Howie did. Terry would do anything. Madden looked at me like — I thought he was going to punch me.
Wladika: The talent, I don’t think they were used to the amount of work they had to do because it was a startup. They were going to all these affiliate meetings and speaking.
Buck: I went to one in Kansas City. It was with Melrose Place people. I was 24 or 25. Laura Leighton — I was like, “Oh my God. That’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life.” I’m on the program with her.
Albert: I remember going to a party with Katey Sagal, who was Peggy Bundy from Married … With Children. Chase Carey, who went on to be a huge executive under Murdoch, we were chatting with him. I was leaning on some kind of pillar and it fell over and nearly broke his arm. That wasn’t a good move by a young, first-year announcer to nearly send one of the top executives at the network to the hospital.
Wladika: We had an upfront in April or May. We’re all sitting in this room. They’re briefing all of us. Brian Austin Green — somehow, he’s wisecracking or something. Matt Millen leans over to me and says, “I don’t know who the fuck that is, but if he doesn’t shut up, I’m going to beat the shit out of him.” I started laughing. I don’t think Millen had ever been part of an upfront presentation before.
Fox went into the preseason like an NFL team that had a few stars and a lot of undrafted free agents. Starting with the August 12 game between the Broncos and 49ers, Summerall and Madden sat in a booth and called the games for TV. Meanwhile, Fox’s 20- and 30-something announcers were arranged in other booths at the stadium, practicing their craft.
Madden: You go and you do rehearsals and all the stuff you do before, and now the screen goes black just before you’re ready to come on the air. I’m looking at that screen. I’m thinking, “When they count down to zero, I hope a game comes up.”
Stenner: I’m in the truck, and I turn around and saw George Krieger crying. I thought it was so cool he was so emotional.
Wladika: The funniest story is actually when we were doing our first preseason game. I’m walking with Mr. Murdoch. We walked into Candlestick Park. He looked down at the field. At that point, they still had everything set up for baseball. The question he asked me was, “Were we supposed to take care of the grass?” I explained to him, no, that was not our responsibility. He was worried.
Buck: I remember my first line was, “Welcome to exhibition football.” Right out of the gate, they were like, “Don’t ever say exhibition football again. It’s preseason football.”
Harlan: Summerall and Madden are doing their first Fox telecast. In our remote booth way up and high and out of reach of everybody we got to listen to some of their pre-production. I remember listening to Summerall voice the open. It was something to the effect of, “A new day has dawned in the NFL and broadcasting.” They had the sun rising. His words and his voice with that bit of video and that setting … I was going, “Oh my God! What have I done? What am I doing?” He was the gold standard.
On September 4, the opening day of the 1994 NFL season, a viewer tuning to Fox heard the familiar 20th Century Fox fanfare. It was like they were about to watch a movie. Then Terry Bradshaw appeared in a cowboy outfit. “It’s a new day for the fan,” Bradshaw said. “A new day for Fox. It’s a new day for this ol’ country boy.” Bradshaw rode a horse through “Holl-ee-wood,” before hopping off just outside a soundstage. Fox Sports had ambled into the American consciousness.
Bradshaw: I rode in on a horse.
Long: Scott [Ackerson] had me change the outfit three times, I think. There was a turtleneck, then there was a shirt. Finally I turned to him and said, “Motherfucker, make up your mind!”
Hill: I was so sure that I was going to be fired that we didn’t sell our flat in London. On Monday, the day after the coverage, Rupert would get a call from Commissioner Tagliabue saying, “Get rid of that clown.”
Brown: There were a couple of things that maybe gave me personal motivation. One was that someone at CBS had remarked to a writer who was previewing the lineup, “Well, they’re going to find out that JB really doesn’t know anything about football. It’ll be found out early and quickly that he’s the weak link to that show and probably won’t be there long.” I didn’t dwell on that at all. I mean that. But that was motivation.
Ackerson: The pregame show worked pretty well. The problem was halftimes. We had a computer and we’re trying to have instantaneous score updates. We thought the chyron machine updated the score live on air. Except the information from the site was reversed. The scores were wrong. Thank god the internet wasn’t around back then. I can’t really fathom how Twitter and Facebook and all those different platforms would have reacted.
Stockton: We never rehearsed! We didn’t have a rehearsal game. Matt and I did the Giants-Eagles game at Giants Stadium. We just rolled it out. We just did it. “Welcome to Fox Sports.”
Anthony Muñoz, Fox analyst: It’s not like I trained to be an analyst on TV. They hired you, you went to the summer meeting, and, bang, you’re doing your first game on live TV.
Shanks: We were doing Philly at the Giants — the first game ever on Fox. We get out there and everything was just a fire drill. Late, late Saturday night we finally get things working and we don’t have Randall Cunningham’s headshot. How is that possible? I call Los Angeles. The woman running graphics at the time was this really sweet, very talented graphic artist from Australia. I said, “You know, we don’t have Randall Cunningham’s headshot for the Eagles game.” She goes, “Is that a problem?”
Harlan: We were in Green Bay. There were some issues in the truck. I remember having a production meeting around midnight [on Saturday], which is just unheard of. I go to bed at 1:30 or 2 a.m. thinking, “Oh my God, what am I doing here? We can’t do this every Sunday.” Sure enough, we didn’t. That first week, there were some issues of, as John Madden would say, getting our shorts on straight.
Kempner: We knew we could do a game. We just weren’t sure if it would get back home. I wasn’t worried about anything but, “Do we actually have the infrastructure in Los Angeles to get the game home?”
Buck: Did I feel ready? Absolutely not. I showed up at Soldier Field that first Sunday of the regular season with Tim Green and it was like, “What is going on? I mean, what am I about to do here?”
Brennaman: I was nervous beyond description. I’m not implying for a second that I’m any good at it now. But it took me a long time to get to a point where I felt I was even competent doing football for so many, many, many years. Now I enjoy doing it more than any sport that I do.
Wladika: Up to that point, people were just having a field day making fun of Fox because of what it was known for: Married … With Children, The Simpsons, Cops, Beverly Hills, 90210. They were making fun of it before it came on the air. When it came on the air, people were like, “Oh, it’s … normal.”
D’Ermilio: As I recall, people were like, “It looks like football, it sounds like football, and John and Pat sound the same as they did at CBS. What were we all so worried about?”
Ackerson: I don’t mean to sound egotistical. Frankly, I think we should have been well received. I thought our show was better, it was different, and it delivered on what Fox had promised the NFL. Be innovative, do things differently, and we’ll go forward.
Hill: Chase rang after the first weekend and said, “Fucking awesome. That was terrific.” … Rupert thought it was fine. Rupert doesn’t exist in today’s world. Rupert exists like three years out. His mind can see round corners. If he didn’t like it, he would have fired me and put someone else in. That’s the way it works.
Dolgin: If you look at the coverage and what people do in sports now, it looks more like what we did than it did before we were there. It’s gone our way. … The kinds of things you see now are very different than if Fox had not come in and said, “It’s OK to treat sports as entertainment.”
Long: When we started, Chris, my oldest son, was 8 or 9. Kyle was 6 and Howie was 5. Now, two are playing in the NFL.
Albert: I have a picture on my wall. It’s a picture from the original seminar and most of the announcers and executives are in it. There’s 20 or 25 people in the picture. At least 15 of them are still there.
Buck: I’m still here. Thom’s still here. Kenny’s still here. And Kevin’s a big guy at CBS. … It’s not like anybody got laughed out of the business. I think maybe that’s kind of the hidden story in here. They really evaluated people well, young and old. And that’s pretty rare.
Dolgin: If [Murdoch] didn’t make that bet on the NFL and change the character of that weblet to a major, revolutionary network, I’m sure of one thing: Things like Fox News, FX, Nat Geo — the cable empire wouldn’t have been there. I’m not sure that this whole empire wouldn’t have been there. … All of that is traced back to this bet-the-farm, multibillion-dollar Hail Mary to get NFL rights. Because NFL rights were the only thing that was going to get him new stations. … Look, he just sold [the studio] for $70 billion. I guess it was the best $400 million he ever spent.