Reshuffled booths, streaming: How watch NFL games has evolved

The landslide triggered by Tony Romo has rumbled into America’s living room.

CBS backed the Brinks truck for Romo in early 2020, signing him to a deal that earned him $18 million a year and immediately reshaped the NFL announcer market.

Two years later, an unprecedented reshuffle.

Al Michaels to Amazon, which will stream Thursday games. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ESPN. Mike Tirico was promoted to NBC’s #1 play-by-play chairman. And Jim Nantz gets a sweetened deal to stay on at CBS, where he and Romo are in their sixth year and are suddenly the longest-serving active tandem on any given network.

This season brings new meaning to the term ‘surfing the channels’, as the music chairs in the dressing room mean new – yet familiar – voices of football can be heard on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights.

Those deals, most in the $15-20 million a year range, might be gargantuan in some ways, but they’re rounding errors compared to the billions these networks spend on NFL rights. Like the quarterbacks, these announcers are the face of a franchise and custodians of television’s biggest ratings maker by miles. NFL games were 75th of the top 100 most watched shows last year.

“No one in the history of time has ever said, ‘Hey, don’t tell me who’s going to win the Super Bowl. I’m going to watch it with my friends next weekend,'” Buck said. “You can’t record it and watch it later. Advertisers drool over stuff like that.”

Lots of people can rant about football on TV, but the extreme upper class — the polished storytellers hired by the networks to name those major national games — is razor-thin. ESPN cycled through Monday Night Football hosts as the Cleveland Browns tear through quarterbacks.

This year, ESPN paid what was necessary to upgrade Buck and Aikman, who are in their 21st year working together and tying the longevity record of John Madden and Pat Summerall.

Why is it now particularly important for league broadcast partners to put together the best possible productions? Because the best broadcast teams get the best games from the NFL.

“It’s fascinating to see that in some respects there’s been this game of musical chairs and there’s an urgent need to make sure you’re investing as an NFL affiliate,” Nantz said. “You invest in what your elite crew is going to present. The channel’s value is suddenly taken to a whole new level, and it really started with Tony.”

Tony Romo and Jim Nantz work in the broadcast booth before an NFL football game

Tony Romo and Jim Nantz work in the CBS broadcast booth before a 2017 game between the Green Bay Packers and the Cincinnati Bengals in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

(Morry Gash/Associated Press)

The landscape is also changing and how the league will schedule and distribute games in the years to come. Currently, NFC games belong to Fox and AFC games belong to CBS. However, that system will change next season when all games will essentially become free agents.

For example, just because an AFC team is on the road doesn’t guarantee a game belongs to CBS. Each game will be a jump ball between networks.

At the end of the 2023 season, when everything is settled, the NFL must ensure that it meets certain minimum requirements for all of its partners, requiring each NFC team to land on Fox a certain number of times. But the idea, “Hey, it’s the Rams in the 49ers. Must be a Fox game” will be finished.

It is therefore particularly important to have the right people in these jobs. Some of the giants of the game have tried and failed. Bill Walsh. Joe Montana. Joe Namath. Even Drew Brees, who appears to have been created in a lab to make television — looks, charisma, pedigree, brains — only lasted a year on television.

“No one in the history of time has ever said, ‘Hey, don’t tell me who’s going to win the Super Bowl. I’ll watch it with my friends next weekend.’ ”

— Joe Buck, ESPN broadcaster

In the pipeline is Tom Brady, who signed a whopping 10-year, $375 million deal with Fox earlier this year, set to take effect when his gaming career ends. Hard to know how he’s going to do it or if his heart will be in it. So far, Peyton Manning has defied this well-trodden path.

Kevin Burkhardt and former Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen move up to No. 1 at Fox to replace Buck and Aikman. It must be a little strange for Olsen to wait for Brady to tap his shoulder even before he has declared a game.

Amazon Prime is the new player in this space and has enticed the legendary Michaels to start his NFL venture the right way. He will be joined at the booth by color analyst Kirk Herbstreit, whose remarkable talent has taken him in three different directions: adding Thursday night NFL games to his already full plate of ESPN’s College GameDay and ABC’s prime-time game of the week.

Speaking of the transition from over-the-air TV to streaming, Michaels said, “I’m excited because all my friends, my kids and my grandkids think this is the coolest thing in the world. Although it’s a different platform, I think you can rest assured that we won’t be reinventing the wheel. We’ll do the games. People will tune in to watch the games and we won’t do anything crazy.”

This moment, when a new network comes into play, is reminiscent of David Hill, who founded Fox Sports in 1994 and brought Madden over from CBS to reunite with his CBS booth partner Summerall. Fox paid Madden $8 million a year, which would have been more than $15 million in today’s dollars.

Rupert Murdoch had to prove he was serious about broadcasting football in the US. What did that bring? He got the NFL rights and used them to convert small Fox affiliates across the country from UHF to VHF channels. Football – and actually Madden – was the cornerstone that built Murdoch’s network from the ground up.

NBC Sports reporter Al Michaels reports from the sidelines during a warm-up before an NFL football game

Al Michaels left NBC’s Sunday Night Football after 16 years to be on the stand on Amazon Prime’s Thursday Night Football this season.

(Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

“John summed it all up in one sentence: ‘I tell them what they see but don’t see,'” Hill said. “The connection between speaker and audience is far more than a network logo.”

As NBC revealed at Thursday night’s kickoff opener, the transition to Tirico will be smooth. He and analyst Cris Collinsworth have worked 22 games together since 2016 and already have the easy chemistry any broadcast team aspires to.

“It’s all natural, and that means we don’t have to worry about the artificial stuff,” said Tirico, the in-studio host of NBC’s Football Night in America for the past five years. “We can only worry about getting our work done because the connectivity of the group working together will take care of itself and has already done so.”

Mike Tirico interviews Rams receiver and Super Bowl LVI MVP Cooper Kupp.

Mike Tirico interviews Rams receiver and Super Bowl LVI MVP Cooper Kupp.

(Steve Luciano/Associated Press)

Sunday Night Football was the most-watched prime-time show for 11 consecutive years. With Tirico and Collinsworth in the dressing room and Melissa Stark on the touchline, NBC is rich in experience. The network lost producer Fred Gaudelli to Amazon but retained Drew Esocoff, who is in his 23rd season of directing NFL prime-time games and will be inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in December.

Taking over for Gaudelli is the veteran Rob Hyland, whom NBC has trusted with some of its biggest events over the past 25 years, including the Olympics, Kentucky Derby and Notre Dame Football.

“The presentation might look a little different,” Hyland said. “Some of the camera angles may be unique and new this season. But what has made the show so successful will continue to advance.”

Two years ago, ESPN tried to strike a deal to acquire Michaels, but NBC — even with plans to eventually replace him with Tirico — wouldn’t let him go. Had Fox not released Buck from his contract a year earlier, Michaels likely would have ended up at ESPN with Aikman. Michaels had done “Monday Night Football” with ABC for 20 years prior to his 16 years with NBC.

For Buck, son of the late announcer Jack Buck, moving to Monday night brings back all sorts of childhood memories.

“When I was a kid going to football games with my dad, when he was playing football games with Hank Stram on Monday nights, the national radio booth was like a makeshift broom closet,” Buck said. “I was a little kid, back in that booth two doors down, looking at Howard Cosell and Don Meredith and Frank Gifford, with the bright lights and the yellow jackets and the hustle and bustle. I was like, ‘Man, I thought what my dad was doing was cool. what is the?’

“It’s that theme song and halftime highlights and a mix of entertainment and sport. It’s a special television property that I really feel like I’m getting a chance to do my own.” Reshuffled booths, streaming: How watch NFL games has evolved

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