“It’s a fucking mystery to me,” one NFL producer said this week. The producer was dumbfounded by the way his corner of the TV industry has changed. In the last two years—and especially in the past two weeks—a handful of football announcers have gotten massive raises, new mobility, and an acknowledgement that they can basically do whatever the hell they want. NFL quarterbacks would recognize the perks. Call it the announcer empowerment era.
Announcer empowerment probably won’t be quite as riveting as player empowerment. There aren’t many broadcasting Michael Jordans who are squaring off with network Jerry Krauses. But the balance of power between management and talent has changed. If you look at the way announcers are switching networks and negotiating new deals, you can see just how much their bosses are giving away.
The biggest thing is more money. A lot more. Two years ago, CBS’s Tony Romo got a raise from about $3 million per year to more than $17 million. Romo was the highest-paid sports announcer in history until two weeks ago, when Fox’s Troy Aikman moved to ESPN for $18 million per year.
Those numbers are mind-blowing. But they almost obscure how much richer every no. 1 NFL announcer has gotten. In the last year, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth (at a reported $12.5 million per year) and CBS’s Jim Nantz ($10.5 million) negotiated contracts that are probably among the richest ever signed, even adjusting for inflation. Fox’s Joe Buck (who could jump to ESPN) and Al Michaels (formerly of NBC but going to Amazon or maybe ESPN) will soon join them. This fall, Aikman, Romo, and Collinsworth will make nearly $50 million combined—at least $30 million more than they made five years ago.
It’s hard to describe how strange it would be for Aikman and Buck to change jobs. In the past, when a no. 1 NFL announcer left a network, it was almost always because the announcer got fired or saw the network’s rights deal change. In 2002, John Madden moved from Fox to ABC’s Monday Night Football. In 1974, Don Meredith left Monday Night after pleading exhaustion with his partner Howard Cosell and the job more generally. (“I haven’t got anything to say about football anymore.”) That fall, Meredith was calling games for NBC with a 400 percent raise.
Today, announcers don’t even have to switch networks. They can get paid by two at the same time. As Peter King reported this week, ESPN’s top college football analyst, Kirk Herbstreit, will likely call Thursday NFL games for Amazon before returning to the mothership on Saturdays. That means an ESPN employee will introduce Jeff Bezos’s sports division to the world. Before Aikman left Fox, one idea that got floated was that Aikman would split time between Fox and Amazon.
Alex Rodriguez and Bill Raftery have split time on different networks for years. But a decade ago, the idea of a no. 1 NFL announcer wearing two different network blazers would have been laughable. “I thought by allowing the announcers to go and work somewhere else, I was diluting my brand,” said David Hill, the former president of Fox Sports. Announcers solved the Taylor Lorenz conundrum: They’re building their personal brands and leveraging the power of legacy media.
In the announcer empowerment era, contracts have become increasingly pliable. Aikman, according to the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand, negotiated a contract with Fox that included a clause that allowed him to leave the network if he could find a “bigger and better” deal elsewhere—a deal he eventually got from ESPN. In other words, Aikman’s contract was valid until someone else thought he was worth a lot more. Even current NFL quarterbacks haven’t figured out that loophole.
If contracts are negotiable, so is the nature of an NFL announcer’s job. After Peyton Manning turned down several offers to be in the booth, he got an ESPN deal that allowed him to be the coproducer of his Monday night Manning-cast. Manning isn’t working for ESPN so much as using the network as a vessel for his own projects. Before the Super Bowl, ESPN announced that Manning’s company would develop similar alternative telecasts for college football, golf, and the UFC.
Announcers have always mused about their contracts in the press. In 1984, when Brent Musburger was talking about a fat, new deal with CBS, John Madden said: “Can you imagine some farmer out in Nebraska reading this?”
Today, the reporting of an announcer’s free agency has the same story beats as an NFL star’s. Before leaving Fox, Aikman wondered aloud about his future. (“I really don’t know what it’s gonna look like when it’s all said and done.”) After signing with ESPN, Aikman suggested there were hurt feelings. (“There’s been some disappointment.”) At the same time, Aikman began lobbying for a beloved former teammate, Buck, to join him at his new home. (“He truly is one of my best friends.”) The only difference between broadcasting and the NFL is that broadcasting doesn’t have the same tampering rules.
Why did networks decide to give away so much money and power? “They would all blame it on Romo,” said the NFL producer. Two years ago, when CBS gave Romo $17.5 million, it was seen as an act of near madness. After replacing Phil Simms with a quarterback fresh off the field, CBS didn’t want to lose him to ESPN.
But it’s ESPN that has done more than any network to raise the maximum salary. Since 2018, ESPN has tried four different analysts on Monday Night Football. It failed to find one it liked. So ESPN’s bid helped Romo get a record salary. Then, by signing Aikman, ESPN beat the record its own failure had helped to create. ESPN signed Aikman for the same reason the Broncos traded for Russell Wilson.
If the announcer empowerment era is the product of a desperate network, it’s also the product of more networks—or more media companies. Until this year, an NFL TV announcer could work at Fox, CBS, NBC, or ESPN. Then Amazon paid $1 billion per year for the rights to Thursday Night Football. As Aikman, Michaels, and Herbstreit have shown, the introduction of just one more potential bidder gave them enormous leverage.
“If you got one person who wants you, you get a job,” Madden told a pal in 1993. “If you got two people who want you, you get a great deal. And if you have three or more, you get a bonanza.” Fox, Amazon, and ESPN wanted Aikman. He got a bonanza.
Perhaps the biggest thing that created announcer empowerment is the primacy of football on TV. Last year, 75 of the top 100 most-watched shows on TV were pro football games. If announcers aren’t responsible for this, they have benefited from it. There has never been a better time to be a docent to the world of football.
What does this mean in the booth? Athlete empowerment rarely extends far beyond a handful of big stars. It’ll probably be the same on TV. Aikman and Romo (and Stephen A. Smith) can make a lot more demands than a second-string crew.
In the NFL, some quarterbacks get a say in constructing the team’s roster. I don’t think an $18-million-a-year color analyst will shape a broadcast any more than he already does. (My contract says a minimum of three replay angles!) I also don’t think it’ll be any easier for a producer to ask an announcer to fly to a game a day earlier or study harder.
Mostly, the announcer empowerment era resembles the players’ version in the way that it creates news. Or an odor of tantalizing possibility that smells like news. If NFL announcers needed any reminder, they’ve learned that their ambitions and heartaches are received gratefully by the people who get paid to cover them. Watch this space.