You’re not going to find many talent moves in sports media as big as yesterday’s revelation that Mike Tirico was leaving ESPN for NBC. The 49-year-old Tirico has been with ESPN for 25 years and has risen to become the network’s most-utilized and respected on-air talent. The personality will soon find himself in an interesting scenario at NBC, as they have considerably less sports programming. Having risen to the top of ESPN’s talent roster across multiple sports, Tirico will soon find himself on air less and covering a smaller load of events as he bides his time awaiting a likely reshuffling of roles of more senior talent in Bob Costas (15 years his senior) and the legendary Al Michaels (22 years older).
We, along with The Big Lead, caught a whiff of this story last week but were assured by representation and network PR there was nothing to the rumor, which was very believable given Tirico’s pivotal role and long time tenure at ESPN. Unfortunately for us, scoops of this size seem to find their way to publications with reporters with khaki pants and $200 landline phones.
But with news of the pending move now public, we have very little clarity in what this means for ESPN and NBC going forward on many fronts. Below, we ponder some of the question marks looming in what has to be one the more unexpected moves in sports media since we’ve been covering it.
Is the Al Michaels retirement or SNF succession plan already in place?
Tirico likely got a significant pay increase leaving his employer of a quarter century, but given he’ll be handling a lot less broadcast responsibilities, you have to wonder what was promised to him down the line. The most obvious answer is he’ll eventually replace Al Michaels on Sunday Night Football where he’d get much better game quality compared to Monday Night Football (Tirico over the years hasn’t been shy commenting on the lacking slate of games ESPN has got from the NFL). The timing of this likely change would be after the 2017 NFL season and 2018 Super Bowl as most lead broadcast talent have their contracts timed to lapse after when their network airs the Super Bowl. With that in mind, it’s believed Michaels has two more seasons under contract with NBC and could step aside at the age of 73 after doing one final Super Bowl.
So essentially Tirico would spend two years in what could be considered a reduced role before assuming the throne of the NFL’s most watched broadcast window. Under the current playoff format, the move would also allow Tirico to do an extra playoff game in the divisional round each year and presumably the Super Bowl every third year once the transition occurs.
My theory is that when NBC gained the second half of the Thursday Night Football package, Michaels may have indicated he (and his wife who travels with him to all games) didn’t have interest in doing two games a week similar to how CBS had handled announcing duties. Given Tirico’s lapsing contract at ESPN, this may have led to a discussion of “Hey, we may be able to get Tirico to do Thursday night, but he’s only going to be interested in coming over if Sunday Night Football opens up after your current contract.”
The interesting thing here is the Thursday Night Football deal is only for two seasons. It’s possible that if indeed Tirico does assume SNF in 2018 and NBC were to reach a renewal for Thursday Night Football, you could either see Tirico doing double duty (a huge assignment having two exclusive window games, making him by far the most visible NFL announcer) or you could see NBC opt to give Michaels a more limited role going forward in a new contract that could see him flipping with Tirico and doing Thursday Night Football instead of opting for a full retirement.
Will Tirico play a role in NBC’s Rio Olympics Coverage?
His contract with ESPN winds down in July. The Rio games start August 5th. One school of thought would be Tirico would need more time to get acclimated to NBC’s production as well as more knowledgable in the events and athletes itself (although Tirico is known for being quite the prepared professional). That said, it’s hard to see how NBC would pass-up someone as diversely talented as Tirico for one of their showcase events.
Tirico could realistically do a lot of studio duties in addition to calling basketball, golf, and tennis action. A gold medal USA basketball game could be his first big game assignment at NBC.
Who replaces Tirico across his various assignments?
Matt Yoder tackled this in a post earlier today, with the most gaping hole being Monday Night Football. When you truly look at how much Tirico took on for ESPN (many forget his radio responsibilities), you have to wonder how big of a punch in the gut this must have been to ESPN.
Oh shit! Could NBC be making a play for Big Ten rights?
Fox got their shiny new half of the Big Ten rights but there are still a lot of rights on the table. ESPN is reportedly circling back with the conference after their lowball offer led to Fox’s accepted bid. NBC is reportedly interested but it’s very hard to see ESPN getting left out here. The Big Ten package is a massive amount of game inventory and there is considerable mutual interest on both sides to get a deal done. That said, perhaps NBC can shock the world and box ESPN out here, or maybe carve out a third package similar to CBS’ legacy basketball deal with the conference.
Many just don’t buy it given NBC’s strategy up until now. That said, unlike other college deals that have been 10-20 years in length, any potential deal would likely be a six year deal as the Big Ten has set their deal with Fox to lapse ahead of when all of the other power five conferences come back for a new round of negotiations. Perhaps NBC , now armed with a capable announcer who has covered the conference for years and available programming windows, senses an opportunity to make a move on ESPN, and gets something done (either a big or small deal) so they get their foot in the door having an actual conference deal ahead of when all of the conferences seek broadcast deals down the line. NBC famously thought they had a done deal with the Pac-12 a handful of years ago only to have ESPN and Fox buddy up to box them out. A bold move here would set the table for the network to be a much bigger player down the road, where it’s possible ESPN maybe even in a more precarious financial position.
Could this affect Jon Gruden’s commitment to ESPN?
Gruden has been a polarizing voice in the booth for ESPN but there is no denying he had great chemistry paired with Tirico. In fact the pair often cited stories of them socializing and interacting outside of the booth while on the road. Gruden can be a bit of an intimidating figure who can be an acquired taste personality wise. Tirico played off that well, and it’s very possible whoever replaces Tirico won’t immediately mesh well with Gruden on air.
Even if they do, given how close Gruden and Tirico were, it’s not unrealistic to think Gruden may find the MNF experience without Tirico a less rewarding and enjoyable experience. Every year we hear rumors of Gruden returning to coaching, but nothing has ever materialized. (His status as ESPN’s highest-paid on-air personality likely helps keep Gruden around.) Perhaps Tirico’s departure will be a component of Gruden reevaluating his interest in returning to coaching. It’s not like he couldn’t return back to the booth down the road should he get the itch to return to the sidelines.
What type of upward mobility could happen because of Tirico’s departure? OMG could Brent Musberger get unshackled from the SEC Network?
Again, please read Matt Yoder’s piece on likely replacements for Tirico. But, beyond that, you have to wonder what type of domino effect takes place after those promotions. There is also this, which is unsubstantiated at this point.
Told Brad Nessler will leave ESPN and do NFL for CBS, until he takes over SEC for Uncle Verne.
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) April 25, 2016
It’s believed Sean McDonough is the favorite to replace Tirico for MNF. Who would replace him? And if the Nessler tidbit does turn out to be true, you’d be looking at two of ESPN’s major three college announcers no longer doing college football at the network. Either way, there are going to be some opportunities. While it’s odd to think of legendary Brent Musburger crossing his fingers needing things to happen in order to get a promotion (again, how ridiculous is it that ESPN buried him?), it’s not out of the realm of possibility Musburger could return to doing notable college football games consistently instead of doing horseshit games like Sam Houston State vs. LSU, Louisiana Tech vs. Auburn, Western Carolina vs. Alabama, and UT Martin vs. Mississippi State. No, seriously, he did these games and that’s just from his first season on the SEC Network. I don’t even want to dig through whatever crap he did last year. Basically the idea of Musburger doing big games again on ESPN or ABC has me in my head dreaming of Brent Musburger It would be glorious………GLORIOUS I tell you!
Dan Hicks has done a good job in this role since replacing Tom Hammond three years ago (I say that with some level of confidence but confess I’m often rooting so hard against Notre Dame that I’m barely listening to the homer broadcast). Again, we don’t think Tirico made the move to NBC without certain specifics worked out on his role like likely replacing Michaels on SNF and perhaps adding some other responsibilities to his plate until that happens. With that in mind, would Tirico want to do Notre Dame games as well?
Given NBC’s Thursday Night package comes at the end of the NFL season (a lot of which comes after the college season has wrapped up) and the fact that a lot of Notre Dame’s games are actually on other networks, the overlap in which he’d be doing double duty in a given week is pretty minimal.
I’m a bit more skeptical on this one, though. You’d have to replace Tirico in a couple of years if/when he did transition to Sunday Night Football so removing someone capable like Hicks just for a two year stint is messy and something that would be problematic to fix or solve down the line. Plus would Tirico bend his professional neutral style to do a Notre Dame slanted broadcast which is basically required for the job? All that said, if Tirico was set on a certain amount of high-profile games while he waited for for the SNF job to open up, I’d imagine NBC would accommodate here if needed.
How can ESPN spin what has been a pretty abysmal past 12 months. How much was money a factor here?
Pretty much this.
You could potentially see ESPN go through a year in which they shutter Grantland, lose Tirico, and lose Big Ten rights. That’s a rough year
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) April 25, 2016
From a morale perspective,it’s a bit tough to sell “Things are great!” when Fox snatched up half of Big Ten rights and now Tirico jumps ship
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) April 25, 2016
At some point, more details will come out on Tirico’s move away from ESPN. One thing that will be interesting to see is if ESPN balked at an opportunity to retain Tirico because of an inability to financially match NBC’s offer. Perhaps Tirico just preferred the role NBC outlined (Olympics and Super Bowls being hard to pass up). But it’s also a possibility, given Tirico’s longstanding relationship with the network, that he gave ESPN an opportunity to put together a package to retain him, which the network deemed too costly to do. If the latter is the case, it will certainly be a blow to morale for those at ESPN, as the network is trying to fight this narrative that they’ve peaked….that they’re vulnerable. This need to financially cut costs and part with high-profile talent and quality programming is only perpetuating that narrative. While they’ve been creative in spinning it thus far, it’s beginning to become a situation that can’t be ignored or spun. If ESPN doesn’t pickup the Big Ten’s remaining rights, you’re going to be looking at a network that is truly beginning to show a notable limp after decades of lapping the field.
While there are still many questions that need answering, what’s unquestioned is that this is a big, big, big addition for NBC and a considerable blow to ESPN.