Photograph: Michael Ainsworth/AP
It has long been understood that no single viewer tunes in to watch the broadcasters of a game. Viewers tune in for, well, the game. The pieces around that – the announcer, the play-by-play analyst, the sideline reporter – are interchangeable parts.
When Tony Romo was set to hit broadcasting free agency, the reports about his proposed salary became a point of public contention, even among active players. Sure, Romo might be the best in the business right now, but is he really that much more valuable than the average analyst or the second person on CBS’ bench?
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Romo’s deal made some sense. ESPN offered Romo a record-breaking $20m-per-year deal to try to resuscitate the networks flagging Monday Night Football brand. Romo instead re-upped with CBS for a reported $17m annually, a figure that will see him earn more than all but four active quarterbacks this season and would rank tenth among all active NFL players.
Broadcast companies pay top money for the highest-rated announcers through a belief that there is a tangible benefit. And while it’s true that the barrier for entry is low, that no one is tuning in for the broadcasters themselves, it’s also true that bad broadcasters can sour the mood, not so much with the viewing public as with the companies broadcast partner: the NFL.
The viewer might only care who’s calling the game in the mythical They Hate My Team sense. But the league office puts tremendous thought into the visual and audio presentation of its games. The big four want their production to be the slickest, to encourage people to hang around, to flog adverts, and to stay in the good graces of the league’s head offices for the next time rights deals roll around. Think of it as an ever-evolving broadcasting power ranking, if you will.
So, let’s power rank.
A quick caveat: this is about the game broadcasts only, not the entire inventory of the company. ESPN’s NFL Live and The Matchup Show are, by some distance, the most informative and entertaining shows on any of the traditional networks. But for this, we’re focusing on the game broadcasts.
Fox’s main broadcast team, led by Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Erin Andrews, has started to grow stale. But it’s the networks undercard that has re-invigorated broadcasts this season, pushing Fox ahead of NBC’s all-dominant Sunday night production.
The Kevin Burkhardt-Greg Olsen duo has already elevated to the top of the heap, sitting firmly in must-listen-to territory every Sunday. Informative, entertaining, the pair hit all of the crucial markers. Olsen, the former Panthers tight end, is armed with all the knowledge of having just walked off the field. He knows the players. He knows the coaches. He gets the tendencies and schemes. And like early Romo, there is just enough broadcasting naivety for him to deliver all of the juicy tidbits and insight without feeling the need to dumb the information down. In Olsen, Burkhardt now has the perfect foil for his brand of intelligence and humor.
But it’s not just the Burkhardt-Olsen team. Fox has leaned heavily into the notion of pairing a player fresh off the field with a veteran broadcaster. Aqib Talib continues to bring a degree of chaos to the established order, offering informative, charming analysis at all turns. Even Mark Sanchez, he of butt-fumble fame, has proven to be a sneakily good in-game analyst, though you will have to wade through a steady dose of cringe-worthy gags designed to show Sanchez is much more than a football-playing jock.
Most importantly: The Fox executives finally relented and brought the Gusgasm to the NFL in full force.
Adding the game’s top-rules analyst, Mike Pereira, is just running up the score at this point.
The league’s beacon of consistency continues to chug along. Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya, and the Sunday Night Football broadcast have long been the league’s gold standard, aided by the cleanest graphics department and best overall presentation – not to mention the best matchup of the week.
Yet it’s likely to be the final year for NBC’s current crew. Tafoya, NBC’s sideline reporter, is set to walk away at the end of the season, according to the New York Post. Michaels is expected to follow suit, with Mike Tirico moving up from part-time duty into the full-time slot. Michaels is the leading candidate to be the voice of Thursday Night Football when Amazon takes over the exclusive rights next year.
Losing the trio on Sunday nights will be a loss, but it opens up the exciting possibility of a fresh broadcast with new voices backed by the top supporting cast in the industry.
Not even the stylings of Tony Romo and Jim Nantz and the top game of the afternoon slate is enough to drag the dust-soaked CBS broadcasts into the top-tier.
You have to hand it to CBS: They unapologetically chase the mature TV viewer. In-between Greg Gumbel’s yammering, you’re treated to a star-studded cast of Phil Simms, James Brown, Boomer Esiason and Bill Cowher breaking it all down. It’s the kind of group that still views Esiason, out of the league since 1997, as its young pup.
Adding Nate Burleson to the proceedings has been a welcome move towards the 21st century. But the same ethos that drives the pre-game and mid-game show has seeped into the game broadcasts, too. It is a sports television empire that appears to be broadcasting with a 1980s mist hovering wafting through the screen.
Romo and Nantz at the top of their games remain the game’s best singular in-game booth. The further removed from the game, though, the more Romo has drifted into his aw-shucks, don’t-we-all-love-football schtick rather than the early Romostradamus style that earned him such a high approval rating. But that shift has worked – and he delivers enough quarterback-centric nuggets to still enlighten the viewer.
Of all the major broadcasts, ESPN’s Monday Night Football continues to lag behind its rivals.
There are plenty of positives: Louis Riddick offers refreshing insight, always focusing on the big picture evolution of the game beyond the specific matchup he is currently working; Brian Griese is good for one-to-two unique insights into the schematic makeup of the game; the pairs dynamic, one a former safety and front office executive, the other a former quarterback, has its merits; Lisa Salters continues to reign as the league’s top sideline reporter.
After that, it’s slim pickings. No broadcast misses more action as it tries to cram in a carefully crafted feature. The three-man booth, Reddick and Griese paired with Steve Levy, feels cramped. There’s a general sense that something is off. And that something is fun.
It’s a broadcast that takes itself too seriously, as though everything about this wonderful dumb game should be hyper-analyzed in the moment rather than enjoyed – the balance that helps elevate the likes of Romo and Olsen.
Levy, the lead announcer, suffers from a strong case of Joe Tessitore-itus. There is no modulation. There is none of Michaels’ self-effacing charm about the state of a dud game. What is happening right now must be the most important because Levy is delivering each call with such volume and force, the moment elevated, perhaps, because it is being called by Mr. Levy himself.
You know a broadcast is in trouble when a couple of million viewers click over to its own network’s companion show. The ManningCast has become ESPN’s top option, even if 40% of the show remains unlistenable due to shoddy internet connections. The lack of sheen has given the ManningCast a sort of folksy charm, as if it’s just another YouTube or Twitch show rather than a sanctioned NFL production from the Walt Disney company piloted by one of the finest quarterbacks of any generation.
Already, the ManningCast already accounts for the seven most-watched ‘alternative broadcast’ delivered by ESPN, and Amazon now has eyes on poaching the Manning brothers for its games next season.
If anything, the show is a touch too loose. As the season has shuffled along, the early season issues with wifi connections and lack of overall production have only increased.
Yet few shows have more innate potential. It could expand, perhaps into a quarterback roundtable style with the participants all *shock, horror* in the same room. Or it could contract, focusing more on Peyton and Eli watching a game than talking to college coach X about his upcoming recruiting class in 30-minute, echo-y, delayed increments. Either way would be positive, and a welcome distraction from the bloated mess on the companies main feed.
Ideally, ESPN would fold the ManningCast into the main broadcast. If not, the company will be looking at yet another hard reset for what was once pro football’s most prestigious broadcast.