The ongoing discussion of Troy Aikman heading to ESPN’s Monday Night Football has come with a lot of potential broadcasting reverberations, including some notable discussion around if long-time Fox partner Joe Buck (seen above at left with Aikman in 2019) might join him. The most interesting recent commentary on that comes from Jim Miller (co-author of famed 2006 ESPN book Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN, with Tom Shales, and more recently the author of Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency) on Jimmy Traina’s latest Sports Illustrated podcast. There, around the 9:45 mark, Miller starts talking about what ESPN might try and do to get Fox to let Buck out of his deal (which expires after the 2022 season) to join Aikman at ESPN for this season.
“The deals are not synced up. If you’re ESPN and you’re Jimmy Pitaro, you want both of those guys in the booth. So you get closer to Troy and get a sense that Troy may come over. And then what happens? Well, if you’re Eric Shanks, you get to sit there and go ‘Okay, yeah, so you won him. Now, let’s start figuring it out.’ In the ESPN book, I wrote about Al Michaels, and there was a Disney character of course, famous Oswald, that was part of the deal to let Al out early. But now, I think what’s been going on behind the scenes, and I’ve heard this from various people, is that there’s some real horse trading.”
“I mean, look, does Fox want to keep Joe if Joe’s going to be unhappy? No. But do they want to be able to monetize this in myriad ways in order to really get some flesh out of ESPN? Absolutely. And what might that mean? You know, if I’m Fox, I might ask for two or three Big Ten games. You can be as outrageous and greedy and audacious as you can in this situation, because at the end of the day, look, it’s ‘Joe does a great job, and we don’t want to get rid of him. If you guys want to have both of those guys together, then you’re going to have to pay.'”
“And it’s serious bucks. Or, it’s getting into some things like ‘Could you give us a couple games?’, or things like that. And the question becomes then, if you’re Jimmy Pitaro at ESPN, how wild do you go, or how crazy do you go? Because you’re spending money on Troy. And then you’re going to have to spend money on Joe next year. But in order to make everything a big debut this year, you’re going to have to pay extra. And going through the next couple of days here, there may be a point where Jimmy Pitaro says ‘You know what, no mas. This is getting too crazy. We’ll wait a year.'”
Following that, Miller says in response to a question from Traina about if there are ongoing ESPN negotiations with Fox, “I believe that that’s the case.” And he adds “Look, if I’m Fox, I think you can feel very aggressive about not giving up a year of this prized talent.” And, in response to another question about if it’s certain that ESPN’s 2023 MNF booth will be Buck and Aikman, he says “I can’t imagine it not being.”
Those are interesting comments on multiple fronts. First off, it’s worth noting that Miller is saying that he’s “heard this from various people”: this isn’t just outside analysis. (Miller has proven apt at that as well, but it’s worth mentioning when his comments do come with sourcing; he has plenty of significant sources throughout the sports media world from his various books and New York Times pieces.) Beyond that, the analysis here makes sense; there’s significant incentive for ESPN to unveil their full MNF booth of the future this year rather than waiting a year for Buck’s contract to expire, as a one-year deal would be highly unfortunate for whoever wound up warming that chair for Buck for a year. But there’s also significant incentive for Fox not just to let an under-contract Buck walk without getting anything in return.
And, on that note, the comments about “horse trading” and “Big Ten games” may point to a resolution. ESPN and Fox are in business together on multiple fronts, particularly with shared college conference deals with the Big Ten, the Big 12, and the Pac-12. A big deal with those contracts, which are generally summarized as “splits” and tend to be relatively evenly split in terms of total football tonnage, is who gets first pick of games when. That was the important part of Fox getting the “Tier 1” rights for the Big Ten, particularly including the annual Ohio State-Michigan game, which has paid major ratings dividends. And it certainly would not seem overly difficult for ESPN to transfer a few more weeks of “You have first pick of Big Ten games” to Fox.
What’s interesting about that idea as well is that the incentives are not identical for ESPN and Fox. ESPN’s current programming strategy appears to be programming in depth, especially when it comes to comments like what chairman Jimmy Pitaro said Wednesday about their direct-to-consumer streaming service ESPN+ being “the centerpiece” and “the jewel.” The most recent ESPN rights deals back that up; they’re absolutely interested in getting decent programming for ABC and ESPN networks, but they’re perhaps even more concerned with building up ESPN+ tonnage.
Meanwhile, the slimmed-down “New Fox” (following the 2019 completion of the Disney-Fox deal that saw Disney buying a lot of “non-core” Fox assets) is much more concerned with a few top-tier properties, specifically Big Noon Saturday on the college football front. So there’s absolutely some logic for ESPN to trade Fox a few game picks (probably with the Big Ten, but also possibly with the Big 12 or Pac-12) for the rights to bring in Buck early. And if Fox will take that, that seems like a much better deal for them than when Disney sent Michaels to NBC early in exchange for Oswald The Lucky Rabbit.
But there’s still an advantage there for Disney. The viewership of most college football matchups depends on factors beyond the schools, including how much attention media companies pay to particular matchups. Some games, like Ohio State-Michigan, clearly always matter, but there are a lot of weeks where the “top games” are more subjective. So, yes, handing Fox a few more early selections to boost Big Noon Saturday may hurt ESPN in the short term, but it’s not necessarily a grievous injury. And being able to establish their preferred MNF booth of the future this year rather than next may well be a worthwhile tradeoff. But we’ll see what happens.
[The Sports Illustrated Media Podcast on Apple Podcasts; photo from Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports]