ESPN Firings

Future broadcasters may not like what they face ahead, Salary declines; Dim future for ESPN

The summer of 2022 was wild. ESPN, Fox and Amazon spent on voices like art buyers do at Christie’s. 

ESPN spent flamboyantly for top talent. Lower paid voices decried it but rarely publicly. Based on what I’ve found, the company is paying Stephen A. Smith roughly one million a month. Yes, he’s a hard working talkie and opinion monger. If you don’t take him too seriously he can be entertaining.

From a low paid newspaper writer to a big time TVer, he has grown a bit on me. He does talk big and brings a chuckle to the stage. Yet he knows it’s only sports. Time in grade, put on ESPN the set and he’s always there.    

Rumored among the top earners are Mike Tirico at NBC, who sounds more versatile and sophisticated today than ever before. I’m glad for him that he’s cut down his appetite for overdosing on play-by-play, which he did at ESPN. Do too much and seen excessively makes fans feel overfed. He does more studio work now but not with the quality and command of his mentor, Bob Costas. Whether anyone can down the road is unlikely.

ESPN’s Suzy Kolber will be missed after she was dismissed like close to twenty other colleagues.

Mike, 56, has demonstrated that he can confidently host the Olympics and its wide range of events. He also does Horse Racing well, like the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness which are on NBC. The network has Majors too. A New New Yorker, he has presided over the Majors in the golf world too, the Indy 500, the NFL and more. He’s scheduled to do his first play-by-play of a Super Bowl in 2026, all on NBC. Depending on deals year-to-year, the Super Bowl is sometimes seen prominently worldwide using the American crew. Mike has grown into what he has become, NBC’s face of sports. 

Curt Gowdy in the 1960s was labeled one of the early pioneers on NBC. He  told me in the 80s that he wasn’t remunerated lustily. In the 1960s and 70s, advertising revenue was limited. The technology products that show their wares today were hardly a dream then. Ads were sixty seconds in length, not the thirties today. When demand grew in the 70s, sports on TV erupted. New clients bought in.

Gowdy made his money through investments of all sorts including a stable of radio stations. But still, announcers then were paid very decently. Mel Allen had deals with corporations in addition to teams, stations and networks. Red Barber lived in a modest and smallish home in his final years in Tallahassee. Rival Mel got more engaged with sponsors and interconnected with regional Ballantine Beer. Allen did real well financially in those middle years of his career, 50s and 60s.

The pioneers often didn’t string together a sufficient amount of money, Ray Scott for one. Lindsey Nelson spent his final years teaching at the University of Tennessee. With his love for his alma mater and a contribution to the baseball stadium, the Volunteers named the stadium in Lindsey’s honor.

Good for all voices who were around when their bosses had the budgets to spend on announcers. When the Mets came to town in 1962, Lindsey was named number one, ahead of Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy. It was said he was earning $80,000 a year, more than Vin Scully at the time.

CBS was known for spending somewhat frugally. Interpreting the dialogue, it is believed that the Tiffany’s Jim Nantz is now among all networks’ more visible of the highest paid play-by-players. Later, Tony Romo broke the bank. He was hired by Sean McManus, CBS Sports’ CEO. The print reported that he’s at $17 Million. Sean had the guts and intuition to hire Romo who was untested, right off the field. It paid off mightily for CBS.

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman moved their vocal inflections to ESPN, leaving Fox with Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen. I wonder how Buck and Aikman feel now. ESPN can’t be feeling hefty and sports-TV’s leader now, not after all those rotten cuts in July. A year later, teammates were being dumped by unsympathetic hearts. Suzy Kolber, completely dedicated to the Bristolites for a couple decades was let go at the drop of a thought.

And how about Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy? How shortsighted can ESPN be? The network had its grip on a wonderful NBA trio with Mike Breen. The trio did a masterful job.  An unanswerable why? 

This year, 2023, is feeling like the Roaring Twenties. After the country spent joyously leading to October, 1929, the implausible and improbable happened. It put the world in its worst financial condition. In America until then, our citizenry felt nothing could possibly go wrong. Lots of partying, but as truth was told, there was no real solid financial backing.

On October 29, 1929, the market crashed. Folks who were heavily invested lost their assets. Some of these folks literally threw themselves out of windows. Juxtaposing the recent massive spending for Buck and Aikman, versus ESPN’s firing this year earlier,  what it  demonstrate?

It’s been reported, “With 76 million U.S. households, ESPN has decreased by another 10%. They had 84 million in fiscal 2020, a significant decline from ESPN’s record of 100 million homes attained more than ten years ago.” Based on those numbers, viewership has plunged. It lost huge dollars in subscriber fees and ad spending.

Wondering when things will stabilize? ESPN turned into a wind of two strong forces. First, a humble class of young voices and executives in the 80s built a castle for sports fans. Mike Patrick and Keith Olbermann, Mike Patrick on football play-by-play, Sean McDonough who can do anything and colorful Dick Vitale and Chris Berman. Some thirty years later it hired Buck and Aikman to give the NFL more luster and prominent visibility. Its wave of success flourished nicely until then. ESPN uncorked with lots of money. But it didn’t last long. We witnessed the firing in an ugly July.

ESPN announcers didn’t fly on private jets until recent years. Steve Bornstein who once ran the Bristolites and later the NFL Network told me that early on he asked Fran Tarkenton to rent cars on the road. He did so “with no hesitancy.” 

Then, as Rich Podolsky (link below) pointed out, green cash spread across the ESPN campus. When a few industry movie investments failed, Disney CEO Bob Iger  ordered Jimmy Pitaro, the ESPN president, to execute a spending budget. So Jimmy’s once fat wallet melted in a week.

How will this whole thing turn out? In the 60s and early 70s, TV networks were really just three, ABC, CBS and NBC. That was it!

Now viewing distribution on ESPN, is on an unstoppable drop. Cable is dropping like a rock and streaming is now ballooning. But where does it go? Streaming is confusing. 

Good for viewers but another blow to over the air telecasters.

Here’s Podolsky’s story and his cogent view of the subject:

ESPN puts more salt on a forgettable summer; Mark Jackson is the latest victim; Rich Podolsky explains why


David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Michael Green
11 months ago

When sports didn’t overlap, it was easier for announcers to pick up off-season work–thus, Red Barber did college and pro football and didn’t miss Dodger games. I read that Lindsey Nelson missed something like 25 games in 17 years with the Mets, and one year he did something like 54 football games.

I think I read that Carl Lindemann of NBC said that Gowdy made less with NBC than he did with the Red Sox when he started doing MLB and the AFL for them. Then there’s Vin, who came out … very well, indeed.