Much like coveted playing rosters of professional teams, network sports broadcasting jobs are limited and intensely competitive. Even across college and professional sports, not many prominent positions with popular teams open each year. In fact, very few do.
The odds of achieving great success as a national broadcaster are extremely low. Being blessed with talent, having influential contacts and a little luck help of course. But a tiny percentage of budding broadcasters earn primetime visibility. So with the intense competition and a large talent pool, how are national broadcasters valued?
Most who work for the networks, calling the NFL regularly and basketball or hockey make $1 million or more. The network’s top voices make many millions. Recent reports had three sportscasters making roughly $10 million, Joe Buck of Fox, Mike Tirico of NBC and Stephen A. Smith of ESPN.
Compensation for broadcasters is driven by an American business fundamental, demand. When Tony Romo hit the CBS airwaves fresh off the gridiron in 2017, his reviews were strong. He was considered the freshest and boldest analyst on network television since the early 80s when John Madden brought the game’s vernacular to CBS.
From his very first broadcast, it was evident that Romo didn’t sound contrived. He was himself. His feel for the game resonated with viewers and his play predictions were spot on.
When Romo’s contract was up last year, word leaked (probably by an agent) that ESPN had an interest in signing him. That upped the ante considerably. CBS re-signed him for a reported $17 million. Yes, humongous dollars to do just football. The news startled many in and out of the business.
Big bucks weren’t always the case. Yes, inflation has to be factored in, but Curt Gowdy, one of the nation’s first and most prominent play-by-play announcers, might have made a couple hundred thousand dollars at best, in the prime of his career in the early 1970s. Ray Scott, who was CBS’ lead NFL voice in the late 60s and early 70s, made only $850 to do a Super Bowl. Al Michaels whose work began to sparkle on ABC in the late 70s was paid $1 million by the mid-1980s.
The strikingly high amount Romo is paid has something to do with the value of the NFL to the networks. The ratings, although they dipped last season, are among the highest in television. With the tons of money that the networks charge for advertising, like $5 million for a Super Bowl spot and the billions paid for rights, network management is eager to apply a best-in-class rule when it comes to talent, technology and production. One writer said that the amount that Romo gets to call NFL games is hardly a decimal point of the billions the networks will pay the league in its new rights contract announced on March 18th.
Now it’s been widely reported that Jim Nantz is seeking “Romo like money” in the renewal of his imminently expiring contract. Broadcast agents who are paid commissions of up to 10% will sometimes play one against the other by going public with the negotiations. When word surfaced, true or untrue, that ESPN had an interest in Nantz, CBS had to rethink its bid. To keep Nantz, CBS knows it will have to dig deeper into its pockets. The only ones who generally come out ahead in these negotiations are the announcers and their agents.
Nantz continues to cover some of the biggest events in sports, CBS’ Super Bowls, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships, and The Masters. He’s invariably considered America’s Voice of Golf.
The best and most visible broadcasters do build bonds with fans and foster interchangeable identities with the networks for which they work. Viewers generally have their favorites. NBC’s Al Michaels is probably best known for his years as the voice of NFL’s primetime, CBS’ Jim Nantz for his warmth and storytelling and Fox’ Joe Buck for his concise and crisp calls.
The big national commentators establish themselves as familiar, trustworthy voices for their respective networks, providing a sense of reliability through hectic NFL schedules.
At the bottom rungs of talent are the per diem announcers, those who are not year-round employees of a given network. Some might make as little as a grand a game. Yes, there’s a major dichotomy, just as there is between CEOs and mid-level executives in corporations of all sorts. One prominent national play-by-play announcer told this publication that the public would be quite surprised to see the drop-off in compensation from networks’ top tier voices to the second and third tiers. It’s drastic.
Locally, inspirational voices like Vin Scully made seven figures but it would be difficult to find others who do or did. Then again, Scully was voted the most popular Dodger of all-time and sculped broadcasts better than anyone. Nationally, television opinion mongers like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless are in the many millions but those who work national radio on weekends might not be paid much more than scale.
Back to the NFL, ESPN is the clear outlier, having made headlines in recent years for its revolving door of Monday Night Football announcers. The network has shuffled through four different play-by-play announcers since 2015 and five color commentators since 2017. During this unsettling stretch, fans have been especially vocal on social media about their dislike for a number of on-air personalities like Booger McFarland and Joe Tessitore, both of whom have been since replaced.
While a separation between Nantz and CBS is almost unimaginable, the The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis (@bryancurtis) tackled the question by looking at CBS’ notorious negotiations in 1990 with Brent Musburger, who might have been network television’s biggest name at the time.
After months of tense negotiations, CBS shocked the broadcast world by letting Musburger go. The parallels between Musburger’s negotiations and Nantz’ current situation are in some ways similar. Musburger was as interconnected with CBS as Nantz is today. Will the network boldly do something similar? It’s unlikely but not unimaginable. The personalities involved are different. Musburger made demands of CBS and wore out his welcome. Nantz is gentlemanly and the accepted face of CBS Sports.
Curtis acknowledges that national networks are aware that their broadcasters do little to attract fans, but throw massive salaries at them anyways for “fear of the unknown.”
He writes: “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.”
Yes, while athletes’ values can be measured by their statistics, there are other factors. How do they get along with their teammates? Are they problems in the locker room or somewhere outside the lines?
For network announcers, whose popularities can’t always be accurately gauged, there are means by which to review their performances. On play-by-play, do they call the game accurately? Do analysts share learning points or do they spew inanities? What are their voices like? Are they conversational? Are they entertaining? Do they talk too much or too little?
When it comes to network announcers, there are more intangibles. How do they get along with the production crew? Do they post inflammatory messages on social media? Do they go the extra yard when asked to spend some time with sponsors? Do they get good reviews? Do they get along with members of the teams or leagues they cover? Are they good citizens? What’s their visibility like outside their broadcast work?
Do they rock the boat? Bob Costas put journalism as his top priority at NBC. When he was critical of the NFL for the terrible injuries that players suffer, the league took umbrage. The last thing NBC wanted to lose is the NFL. So in time, Costas and NBC separated.
Is there qualitative or quantitative evidence that national broadcasters do in fact impact ratings significantly? The consensus? Definitely not.
Richard Deitsch – (The Athletic) @richarddeitsch
The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch maintains that while no single national broadcaster possesses the ability to impact ratings, quality broadcasters remain critical to the viewership experience and a viewer’s overall perception of a network.
“Where sports broadcasters have significant impact is how you as a viewer process what you just watched, how you experienced it. That is very important to networks because they want you to have a positive impact about how they broadcast sports, especially networks such as ESPN where you are paying a lot of money as a subscriber.”
Deitsch went on to add that although the impact of broadcasters is insignificant for national ratings, it’s a much different story locally.
“Locally, I do think broadcasters can have a long-term impact on sustaining viewership as someone such as Vin Scully proved.”
Bob Raissmann – (New York Daily News) @nydnraiss
Daily News sports media columnist Bob Raissman believes that the game is what fans are tuning in for, but recognizes the value of a quality broadcast team.
“The game is the thing. Fans are attracted to the quality of the matchup. What a quality, well-known announce team can sometimes do is keep eyeballs watching during a blowout. If they are good storytellers, or apt to talk about the latest NFL controversy, viewers may hang in.”
Jimmy Traina – (Sports Illustrated) @JimmyTraina
SI’s Jimmy Traina believes the impacts of national broadcasters are extremely negligible as it regards ratings.
“I don’t think a network’s broadcasters have any effect on ratings. Nobody will tune into a game for broadcasters and nobody will shut a game off because of broadcasters. Announcers can add or take away from your enjoyment of a game, but they have zero impact on ratings. Jim Nantz leaving CBS wouldn’t cost the network one ratings point.”
Dr. Jon Lewis (aka Paulsen) – (Sports Media Watch) @paulsen_smw
Dr. Jon Lewis (aka Paulsen), founder of Sports Media Watch, a website covering the sports media industry, concurred with Deitsch, Raissman and Traina.
“I don’t believe there is an announcer that could tank the ratings or improve the ratings singlehandedly,” Lewis said.
Recent NFL ratings overwhelmingly support Raissman, Deitsch, Traina, and Lewis’ takes on the matter as well. Ratings data from nationally-televised games including MNF and the Super Bowl are consistently dependent on the matchups being carried, not the announcers in the booth. ESPN still managed to post impressive ratings for key MNF matchups such as Chiefs-Ravens this past season despite an overall decline in league ratings during the pandemic, while the most notable dip in Super Bowl ratings in recent years came during 2019’s 13-3 Patriots-Rams snoozefest.
Regionally and locally this is a far different conversation because broadcasters are typically beloved by fans in their communities and often have strong ties to the teams that they cover, as noted by Deitsch. But on the national level, it’s certainly difficult to establish a strong correlation between broadcasters and ratings.
Now more than ever, networks will be looking to put their best foot forward as the sports media landscape becomes increasingly competitive. While satisfying advertisers has always been at the core of the TV business, new streaming platforms and the rise of cord-cutting threaten to drastically change the business landscape of national game distribution. Yes, an argument can be made that national broadcasters are severely overpaid, but there’s no denying that the headline appeal that guys like Romo, Nantz, Michaels and Buck bring to a network can attract valuable advertising dollars.
Age might be another factor in how long big time voices stay in place. Al Michaels, 76, will leave NBC after the coming season. Mike Tirico will get the Sunday night football gig. Marv Albert who turns 80 in June is likely off Turner’s main NBA slot at the end of the season. Prominent broadcasters of the past left their network gigs in their 70s, Mike Patrick, Brent Musburger, Keith Jackson, Tim Ryan, Keith Jackson, Doc Emrick Tom Hammond and Dick Enberg. Excellent broadcasters like Dick Stockton, 78, and Greg Gumbel, 74 still work but in lesser roles than they had in their prime. Verne Lundquist, 80, only does golf now for CBS.
For the time being, it certainly seems that networks are willing to overlook the lack of a strong correlation between announcers and ratings to maintain stability and avoid a constant public reshuffling of on-air talent.