Through its 40-year history, ESPN has run more games across its platforms than all the over-the-air networks combined, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
If other networks have stables of game announcers, ESPN has a warehouse. As such, there’s really no one anointed face of ESPN play-by-play.
It’s not Matt Vasgersian, Dan Shulman, Joe Tessitore, Chris Fowler or Mike Breen. Not one of this quintet is NBC’s Curt Gowdy of the 60s and 70s, Dick Enberg of the 80s and 90s or Al Michaels of the 2000s. Neither of the five is Jim Nantz or Joe Buck, immediately interchangeable with CBS and Fox respectively.
When it was born in 1979 and operated on a shoestring, ESPN was in no position to land big rights. It took years and ESPN’s acquisition by ABC in 1984 for it to get the NFL in 1987 and MLB in 1990.
ESPN was built around its brand not individuals. Management crafted the label into an unchallenged powerhouse. The very acronym represented a sanctity of sorts. Many of the announcers functioned with distinguished anonymity.
Think about ABC Monday Night Football in its early years, prior to cable. Before the faces of the talent even hit the screen at the top of the hour, the names of the producers were up in bright lights and bold font, “Executive Producer: Roone Arledge” or “Producer: Dennis Lewin.” Not at ESPN. Not lots of fanfare for ESPNers. Viewers rarely if ever see credits for the production team.
But rallying around a brand exclusively won’t cut it anymore, not now when parent Disney wants a bigger piece of the NFL. Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland against Jim Nantz and Tony Romo are like fighting the Russians with brooms.
The big boys, the competition, CBS, NBC and Fox function differently. It’s a different space. Cultures are different. Optics are important. Nantz- Romo, Michaels-Cris Collinsworth and Buck-Troy Aikman speak volumes.
Disney now has its sights on a big chunk of the NFL television pie, more than just renewing ESPN’s Monday night rights which end after the 2021 season. Management is eyeing a piece or pieces of what the three over-the-air networks have. The rights of CBS, Fox and NBC end after the 2022 season.
For many years, signing big named, high salaried announcers was antithetical to ESPN’s brand practices. But it’s a new day. So ESPN first wants to right its own MNF ship.
Disney wanted CBS’ Tony Romo but never got to the negotiating table. The noise and determination coming from Bristol sounded so assuring that CBS nipped the talk in the bud before an exclusive negotiating window closed. So the Tiffany Network committed $17 million per year to extend the popular Romo.
Not getting Romo didn’t temper Disney’s goal of landing a glittering name or names in the booth. Yesterday, the New York Post reported that ESPN is attempting an unimaginable dual deal, trading for NBC’s Al Michaels and partnering him with Peyton Manning. Yahoo Sports reported last night that Manning has been offered $18 million per.
It raises lots of questions. Will this development stimulate NBC to give Michaels an extension beyond his contract termination after the 2022 Super Bowl? What does it do to NBC’s grand plan of appointing Mike Tirico as Sunday night football voice in 2022? If Michaels re-signs with NBC where would Tirico go? This whole thing can turn into a messy three-ring circus. There are so many potential strands, a spread sheet and probability expert are required.
When Al’s contract ends he’ll be 77. Hey, we live in a new world. It’s almost a certainty that our two presidential candidates will be in their 70s. (President Trump turns 74 in June, Bernie Sanders will be 79 in September and Joe Biden will be 78 in November.)
One rumor I heard yesterday from a reliable industry source is that ESPN will pursue four elements from the NFL.
- Renewal of the Monday Night Football package (ESPN’s deal ends after the ’21 season)
- Flex schedule for Monday night
- A piece of the Super Bowl rotation for ABC
- AND get this, usurp Sunday Night football from NBC
With Michaels and Peyton Manning potentially in house, Disney’s roster would be rich enough to air three games a week, Sunday, Monday and Thursday.
Machinations, dreams and window dressing are apparently part of the panoply in this set of NFL negotiations.
What will ESPN do if it can’t get Michaels? There’s been the suggestion of hiring a Kevin Harlan who can serve as a lead voice for Monday Night Football, college basketball and a number two on NBA. Moving Chris Fowler, a lumbering college play-by-play voice and garrulous Kirk Herbstreit to the NFL would be failure on steroids.
Meanwhile, think of the history of the over-the-air networks. Al McGuire, Billy Packer, John Madden, Bob Costas, Vin Scully, Howard Cosell, Jimmy the Greek, Jim McKay, Joe Garagiola and Don Meredith. The Mount Rushmore of sportscasting was never employed by ESPN, Scully, Madden, Costas or Cosell.
The history of ESPN voices who’ve been demoted or shown the door is maddening. Think Brent Musburger or Sean McDonough. Through the years, ESPN let guys like Tim Brando, Ron Franklin, Mike Tirico, Jon Miller and Mike Gorman get away.
With the exception of Dick Vitale, ESPN never embraced colorful game broadcasters, not for a prolonged time. Announcers have also told me that ESPN doesn’t pay as well either. As for the legendary Vitale, now 80, he’s not as visible as he once was on ESPN.
But now Disney is apparently prepared to dig deep and change the culture so it can play in a loftier space. The brand needs some individuality. ESPN is made up of a hodgepodge of broadcasters, from very good to competent but it now requires bold faces who are given freedom.