Grid Announcers Jump Networks
August is time to kick off another season of professional football, television’s most-watched sport. However, this year so many of the sport’s top announcers have jumped from one network to another, or have signed contracts to do so by next year, that fans need a scorecard to keep up with what is going on in the press box as well as on the field.
The changes have impacted all of the networks currently carrying football-CBS, Fox, ABC and ESPN-as well as the newest player in the game, NBC. Among those who will wear different-colored blazers by next season are John Madden, Chris Collinsworth and Al Michaels.
Many of the changes were made by NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol immediately after the Peacock Network acquired its NFL rights April 15 in a $3.6 billion, six-year deal for a Sunday night game. That very day Mr. Ebersol called Bob Costas to sound him out about the new prime-time pregame show.
The next call went to former NBC sportscaster Chris Collinsworth, who was under contract as part of Fox’s top announcing team, “to make him aware of this” Mr. Ebersol said, and to see whether Fox would allow Mr. Collinsworth to negotiate with NBC.
“Fox very graciously agreed within a few weeks to let him negotiate with us for a month. They could have held him off a year,” Mr. Ebersol said.
Mr. Collinsworth eventually signed with NBC for a reported $3 million, up from the $1.3 million he was earning at Fox.
The biggest move came after the agent for ABC announcer John Madden called Mr. Ebersol the day after the NBC-NFL deal was announced. The agent said Mr. Madden was very interested in joining NBC. That led to a deal worth a reported $4 million a year for the former Raiders coach to jump from ABC, where he has been in the booth for “Monday Night Football,” to NBC beginning next year. Mr. Madden made a reported $5 million per year at ABC.
Mr. Ebersol was also interested in signing Mr. Madden’s “MNF” booth mate, Al Michaels. A week after the NBC-NFL deal was announced, a mutual friend approached Mr. Ebersol, saying Mr. Michaels was “very interested in being a part of [‘Sunday Night Football’], especially since he was aware John was very interested,” Mr. Ebersol said.
Those conversations went on until July 25. “We have hard lines we wouldn’t cross in terms of salaries,” Mr. Ebersol said. “He couldn’t believe we would never change our offer.”
NBC reportedly offered Mr. Michaels $2.9 million-including some work on the Olympics. But Mr. Michaels instead signed to do ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” for $4.2 million, up from the $4.1 million he was getting to do the games for ABC.
While sports network executives said announcers don’t bring in ratings, Mr. Ebersol said he wants to move quickly because the brand matters.
He noted that Mr. Costas, Mr. Madden and Mr. Collinsworth have dominated the sports Emmys and that Mr. Madden transcends TV and generations as the voice of one of the most popular video games, “Madden NFL Football.” “Having them right off the bat for a brand-new prime-time football package says this is big time. That’s as much of a statement to your advertisers as it is to your viewers.”
NBC still has to find a play-by-play person to team with Mr. Madden. One name being mentioned for the job is NBC’s Tom Hammond. Mr. Ebersol said he expects to begin talking with candidates in September and hoped to have someone signed by October or November. For this year, Mr. Madden and Mr. Michaels will be back in the booth on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” through next year’s Super Bowl XL in Detroit, which will be the final NFL game that ABC will air after 36 years of football broadcasting. Mr. Madden will premiere on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” in 2006.
“It’s our last season on ABC, and we’re going to make it a great one,” said Al Michaels, Mr. Madden’s broadcast partner, during an “MNF” preseason press conference call.
ABC’s “MNF” will “go out in grand style. We’re committed to that,” said Mark Shapiro, executive VP of programming and production at ESPN. “It isn’t going to be a lame-duck season.”
“It’s a tough situation for everyone,” Mr. Madden said of his own lame-duck status. “When the league decided they were going to redo the contracts a year early, that made a lot of things go a year early.”
But he added that from preseason through the Super Bowl, this season is “the only thing that’s important to me and the only thing I’m looking forward to.”
With NBC coming back into football, other networks began guarding their talent.
“There’s no question that a number of our announcers were in play. I wasn’t surprised by that. That was a concern as soon as NBC got back into football,” said Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports.
In addition to Mr. Collinsworth being approached by NBC, Mr. Goren said, ESPN went after analyst Troy Aikman.
Fox re-signed Mr. Aikman. Industry sources speculated that the former Dallas Cowboy quarterback got a raise similar to Mr. Collinsworth’s. Without Mr. Collinsworth, Fox’s top games will have a two-man announcing booth comprising Mr. Aikman and Joe Buck. “Joe and Troy will be better in a two-man booth than they were in a three-man booth,” Mr. Goren said.
Mr. Goren said two other Fox announcers were approached by other networks, but Fox has retained them. He declined to name the two announcers. He called the interest in its announcers “a compliment to the quality of the talent we’ve acquired at Fox Sports.”
CBS’s NFL talent was largely out of play because CBS Sports President Sean McManus moved early. “We anticipated this coming, and we went through the same process that NBC and Fox went through, only we went through it eight months earlier than they did,” Mr. McManus said.
CBS re-signed Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason and Dan Marino and is close to completing a deal with Dan Dierdorf.
“I didn’t want to take a chance on letting any of those guys out on the market, and they were happy at CBS, so we got the deals done earlier rather than later,” Mr. McManus said. He wasn’t sure whether he saved money by not waiting till a bidding war broke out, but added, “I think I saved myself a lot of aggravation.”
Next year, when “MNF” moves to ESPN, Mr. Michaels will team with ESPN’s Joe Theismann in the booth, and Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber will be sideline reporters.
Mike Patrick and Paul McGuire, who had been a part of ESPN’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast, “will be part of ESPN going forward,” Mr. Shapiro said. “We had two great teams. We had to make some difficult decisions.”
Mr. Patrick and Mr. McGuire could also be candidates to staff a package of late-season Thursday and Saturday games the NFL is considering selling to a network in 2006. Turner Broadcasting, Comcast and the NFL Network are among potential homes for those games. Those negotiations are expected to heat up this fall.
Meanwhile, more former players and coaches are jumping into the announcing business this season.
CBS added former Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon to its team. Mr. McManus said that it takes a season to tell whether an ex-player has the real potential to be a top analyst. Mr. Gannon “has a good personality and he was articulate in all the interviews we’ve done with him over the years,” Mr. McManus said. “He was the best of all the people we looked at this year.”
The NFL Network hired former Cleveland Browns head coach Butch Davis and Fox broadcaster and former NFL lineman Brian Baldinger to work on its “Playbook” show, which is expanding this season to five nights a week.
And Fox Sports Net hired future Hall of Fame wide receiver Tim Brown and former Giant and Ram Jason Sehorn to provide analysis for its new “FSN Pro Football Review” program. The show will be hosted by Chris Myers.
Football Ad Market Booming
The sports market remains one of advertising’s hot spots.
Going into the new season of professional football, adverti
sing sales appear as strong as an all-pro linebacker. Commercials for the first few games of the season are already sold out. And spots on NFL games are getting bigger increases than prime-time programming scored during the recent upfront. While the pace of buying is more deliberate than in past years, according to Mike Law, supervisor of national broadcast at Carat, price increases are on the high side of mid-single digits.
The big change in the NFL is the ratings parity the American Football Conference package on CBS has achieved with the National Football Conference package on Fox. While major football advertisers, such as automakers and movies studios, are spending money on both networks, sponsors with budgets of $2 million or $3 million are looking at CBS more often, Mr. Law said.
“It will be a more interesting marketplace next year,” Mr. Law said, when NBC takes over the prime-time broadcast package and ESPN takes over “Monday Night Football.” “There will be a lot of shifting around.”