In 1990, Jim Nantz had lunch at a diner off Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway. His announcing future was on the menu. Nantz had turned 30 the year before, and his work in the booth and the studio had impressed his colleagues at CBS. One called him a “stone superstar.” But where the NFL always runs short of great quarterbacks, TV has the opposite problem. There are more potential no. 1 announcers than there are jobs.
Nantz’s career changed at that lunch. CBS had just lost its no. 1 guy after a disastrous contract negotiation. An executive sitting across from Nantz offered him one of the former no. 1’s biggest assignments: lead play-by-play of college basketball. March Madness. Nantz didn’t become the Nantz we know today at that moment, but the promotion put him on the path to becoming it. Hello, face of the network …
Recently, when I read about Nantz angling for an annual salary to match Tony Romo’s $17.5 million, I thought about that lunch. Of all people, Nantz knows what can happen when CBS’s biggest star faces off with management over a contract. Only the last time around, Nantz wasn’t the star. He was the understudy who benefited when the star left. The star was Brent Musburger.
In 1990, CBS came close to achieving a monopoly on big games. “We had what was being called at the time the Dream Season on CBS,” Nantz told me at a golf tournament a few years ago. “We had the NBA. The NBA Finals. We had the Super Bowl. We had, of course, the Final Four and the Masters. We had the dominant college football package, which at the time was called the CFA. And we had the World Series.” Watch the CBS promos. They were like a TV executive’s idea of a hype song.
Brent Musburger was the Dream Season’s dream master. In our deconstructed salad of a media universe, it’s hard to explain how much scenery Musburger chewed and the joy with which he chewed it. A “face of the network” was bigger back then, since the networks still claimed more than 75 percent of the prime-time audience in 1985. (The number dropped to 57 percent a decade later.) And Musburger was on TV all the time. “If you tuned in one weekend and didn’t see Brent Musburger on CBS,” a 1985 TV Guide article noted, “you probably thought you’d tuned in to PBS by mistake.”
In his years at CBS, Musburger called play-by-play of the NBA Finals and the Final Four. He hosted The NFL Today, the NBA, the Masters, college football and basketball, U.S. Open tennis, the Pan Am Games, weekend anthology shows, and the odd stunt like “The Human Fly.” For a time, he anchored the 6 p.m. local news on CBS’s Los Angeles affiliate five nights a week before hustling back to New York to do sports. By the mid-’80s, Musburger was on TV for 200 hours a year. As his NFL Today cohost Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder once said, “You going to do volleyball this week?”
Musburger made more money ($3.6 million per year, adjusted for inflation) than any other sports announcer. His eternal presence made him a divisive figure. But since Roone Arledge gave birth to Monday Night Football, sports TV’s aesthetic had landed somewhere between Mad Men and Anchorman. That was Musburger country. His catchphrase was “You are looking live!” Snyder once punched him in a dispute over airtime. On Saturday Night Live, Musburger was played by Kevin Nealon.
Musburger and his brother, Todd, who acted as his agent, were ace contract negotiators. In 1980, Musburger obtained a salary of nearly $1 million a year from CBS and became The NFL Today’s “managing editor,” a title snagged by Dan Rather. Four years later, Musburger doubled his pay and became the lead play-by-play announcer of college sports. In 1990, the Musburgers started a third round of negotiations with high aspirations. Brent wanted to call the World Series and play a big role on Olympics coverage.
Nantz arrived at CBS from a Salt Lake City station in 1985. As Musburger shed jobs (the college studio shows, Masters host), Nantz absorbed them. It felt like destiny. A few years before joining CBS, Nantz had gone to the Final Four and sat close to Musburger’s announcing perch. “I spent half the game watching the teams,” he told a newspaper years later, “and the other half watching Brent.”
In 1990, Musburger and Nantz went to the Final Four in Denver as CBS teammates. On March 31, Musburger called the semifinals while Nantz served as host. Afterward, they ate dinner together. When they got back to their hotel, Musburger’s assistant called him over. After months of negotiating Musburger’s role, Todd Musburger had pushed the network for an answer that night. CBS decided to end Musburger’s grip on the sports division and get reps for its young announcers. The answer was “no.”
Headlines would say CBS “fired” its no. 1 announcer. It was more accurate to say the network decided not to renew Musburger’s contract. The difference hardly mattered.
Again, our splintered media universe makes it hard to explain just how big Musburger’s ouster was. It was as if the networks canned an ’80s host of the evening news. Nantz noted the April 1 date and assumed someone was playing a prank. When it became clear CBS was serious, reporters realized they’d been handed a giant off-day story. On April 2, Musburger’s exit ran on the front pages of newspapers from Atlanta to Sacramento opposite the latest troop movements in Lithuania.
Mike Francesa, who worked as a CBS analyst and was part of the “Musburger Mafia,” was at the Final Four. He came back to his hotel room to find dozens of messages from journalists slipped under the door. A week later, Musburger went on a media tour that included stops on Good Morning America and Late Night With David Letterman. (Brent opened the show by announcing Dave as “my partner in the broadcast booth for the last 25 years.”)
Sudden media divorces—including several recent ones—usually aren’t all that sudden. CBS executives and Musburger had their disputes behind the camera. CBS “decided I was too big for my britches,” Musburger said later, “and that they were just going to take me down a peg or two.” He called the negotiations a “sham” and a “setup all the way.”
In Denver, the story had a final act. Though Musburger had lost his job in public fashion, he still went out to call the final game of the NCAA tournament the next night. Imagine if Sports Twitter had been around to do play-by-play of that. “Folks, I’ve had the best seat in the house,” Musburger told viewers after UNLV blew out Duke. “Thanks for sharing it. I’ll see you down the road. Now let’s send you to Jim Nantz.”
“All that I remember about that time,” Nantz told me later, “was people were trying to figure out What’s going to happen? What’s going to fall out of this?” Musburger’s exit opened up a bunch of career-making jobs. True to its word, CBS spread them around. Greg Gumbel got to host The NFL Today. Pat O’Brien got to host the NBA Finals. Jack Buck called the World Series. Nantz took over college basketball play-by-play.
Then the bills for the Dream Season came due. CBS had paid billions for its near monopoly; its Major League Baseball deal alone cost more than $1 billion over four years. By the end of 1993, the network had lost the rights to baseball, the NBA, and the NFL. But even during the lean period that followed, the network never let go of the Masters and March Madness. Nantz became the voice of those events. Thirty-one years later, he has a job as close to Musburger’s as any modern announcer could have. Two lessons from the Musburger saga are relevant today. Networks know viewers almost never watch games to hear an announcer. But out of a mixture of familiarity and a fear of the unknown, they reward announcers handsomely anyway. “We pay exorbitant salaries to nebulous entities,” an executive admitted in 1990. Then—when an announcer gets too big for his britches, or simply too old—the networks take everything back, disabling the superannouncer they helped create.
After leaving CBS, Musburger dusted himself off and had a great 27-year run at ABC and ESPN. In 2014, he was still calling the college football national championship game. But Musburger never had the same job he’d had at CBS. That job was a combination of seniority and identity. Just as CBS extracted plenty from Musburger, he drew power from being the face of CBS, as if the eye on his network blazer were a sheriff’s badge.
So far, Nantz’s negotiations with CBS seem far chummier. But when you contemplate Nantz calling Thursday and Friday at the Masters for ESPN, rather than Saturday and Sunday for CBS, the same question hangs over them. What’s more valuable, Tony Romo money or a job for the ages?