One of the wider trends in sports at the moment are various bold on-the-record proclamations that don’t appear to fully match with what you’d expect from regular logic, or with what is being reported through a variety of anonymous sources. We’ve seen a lot of that with conference realignment in particular. There, there have been reports on ESPN involvement that have been vociferously denied by that network (despite plenty of logic and reporting underpinning that), plus school presidents claiming they’ve had “no discussions” with conferences where there have been multiple credible reports of school-conference contact.
And we’re now seeing some of that with the recent ESPN change of Monday Night Football‘s producer and director. That change has seen producer Phil Dean and director Jimmy Platt shift to college, and producer Steve Ackels and director Derek Mobley coming in on MNF. The on-the-record comments denying a role for announcers Troy Aikman and Joe Buck in that move seem to contradict the thorough reporting, and seem to contradict what seems reasonable just from thinking about it. That’s at least until you get down to an extremely detailed level of analysis of the particular wording used.
The producer and director changes at ESPN were reported by Sports Business Journal on Friday, March 11, and also announced by ESPN that day. Last Wednesday, Andrew Marchand of The New York Post said on The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast that “It’s not fair to say that Troy Aikman or Joe Buck made this change, but there was a feeling from people close to the situation that Aikman wanted a different producer.”
On Thursday, AA’s Sean Keeley published a piece speaking to several production staffers who agreed to be quoted anonymously about tensions between analyst Aikman and the Platt/Dean duo last year. However, that piece also included an on-the-record quote disputing that from ESPN executive Stephanie Druley, head of studio and event production. “We can say unequivocally this decision was made solely by me and our management team. Period. These new assignments best position our overall football coverage for years to come and, to be clear, they were not dictated by any members of our on-air team.”
On Monday, Marchand published a detailed look at the situation, with analysis and not-for-attribution sources further supporting his previous comments (and the comments to Keeley) on Aikman wanting a different producer. However, that piece also included an on-the-record quote from Buck denying that he or Aikman were involved in the change (and a decision not to comment from Aikman):
What is Buck saying: I spoke with Buck before the podcast last week, and he gave me an on-the-record quote.
“Those decisions are made way above us,” Buck told The Post. “We are the new guys on the block. Those are assessed above where we sit. I’m proud about what we all did and where we are going.”
What is Aikman saying: Aikman declined a request to interview him. A PR person said he appreciated that I reached out.
This is where careful word-parsing is required for what Buck does and does not say. Look, on one level, Buck is likely technically correct, and that is the best kind of correct. Buck and Aikman do not have direct supervisory influence or decision-making power over the MNF director and producer, and they are not making those calls. But while “those decisions are made way above us” may be specifically accurate for where the decision is “made,” it feels like “I just work here.” And that feels like an extreme downplaying of the potential influence ESPN’s shiny new MNF commentators appear to have.
ESPN spent big money to get Aikman and Buck, paying them an estimated $18 million and $15 million respectively annually on five-year deals. That move has seen them receive praise for their on-air work, and even some credit from ESPN’s own shows for the network getting some top games. The broadcasters were likely only one factor there, but it should be noted that the NFL cares very much about who’s calling its top packages, even to the point of specific micromanaging interference at some points. And ESPN was very eager to get Aikman and Buck, as Marchand notes, and none of the concerns raised about Buck and Aikman so far would alter that:
ESPN wanted Buck and Aikman. They paid them a boatload of money. ESPN wasn’t in position to dictate terms about anything. If the network wanted them, it had to agree to let Buck and Aikman do it their way. After one year, ESPN would do the deal again, even if Buck and Aikman are big-time Zoomers and conference call proponents for their prep.
And while Buck and Aikman are only part of the overall Monday Night Football team and production, they’re the MNF figures most in the public eye. And they’re the ones most commented on by viewers. And they drew ESPN a 3.22 grade (out of 4) from our NFL announcer reader survey this year, third of 17 national TV teams, and much better than the network’s former surveys did in our previous reader surveys in 2020 (Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick, 2.51/4, 8/15), 2019 (Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland, 1.29/4, 14/14), and 2018 (Tessitore, McFarland, and Jason Witten, 1.08/4, 15/15).
Those surveys are only part of the discussion, of course, and they only represent people who choose to vote, but they do help indicate some of the overall tone of the conversation about various national booths. And the conversation around ESPN’s MNF booth got much more positive with the 2020 shift, and then got more positive still following the hire of Buck and Aikman. That move was big enough to get a Sports Illustrated daily cover story, along with countless other media coverage. So it’s absurd to think that ESPN would invest so much in that pair and place so much emphasis on them, then not ask them for feedback on the producer and director they worked with after their first year, or not take that feedback into account.
And, to be clear, there isn’t reporting at the moment that solidly indicates Buck provided any negative feedback. But there is plenty of reporting between Keeley and Marchand that Aikman expressed frustrations with the telecast approach. And even if Buck’s claims that the producer and director decisions are “made way above us” and “assessed above where we sit” are true, it seems absurd to imagine that that assessment wouldn’t consider the feelings of ESPN’s $90 million analyst.
And that’s far from unprecedented in the sports world, where we often hear about quarterbacks in particular being consulted on personnel decisions, and about general managers trying to keep them happy. That’s not often as explicit as Aaron Rodgers’ ‘hostage situation‘ list of players he wanted the Jets to bring in. But the general idea of top-paid on-field figures being asked for opinions on personnel decisions that aren’t specifically part of their job description has been seen a lot. And it’s sometimes been seen in booths as well, and in the general media world. High pay and high value from a team or company often comes with some influence on decisions, even if they’re not explicitly “made” at your level.
Was Aikman’s feedback the only factor in these moves? Not necessarily. Personnel moves can involve a lot of factors, especially when they lead to as much role-juggling as these ones did. And Druley’s claim that these moves “were not dictated by any members of our on-air team” may well also be technically correct; there’s no firm reporting that Aikman actually demanded changes, and even listening to that wouldn’t necessarily equal “dictated.” As Marchand said originally, “It’s not fair to say that Troy Aikman or Joe Buck made this change, but there was a feeling from people close to the situation that Aikman wanted a different producer.” And Druley’s “We can say unequivocally this decision was made solely by me and our management team. Period” may well be true in terms of who “made” the decision. But that does not rule out that decision being at least partly based on feedback from Aikman.
There’s a larger context to consider here as well. We’re going more and more into an era of highly-paid superstar talent at ESPN, with those superstars at the top having much more flexibility to set some of their own content approaches and even sometimes have huge impacts on what they’ll be doing and who they’ll be working with. From the end of Mike and Mike in favor of Mike Greenberg moving to Get Up (and later a radio show and podcast as well) through Stephen A. Smith’s role in pushing out Max Kellerman and taking over as the sole regular host of First Take, we’ve seen a lot of reporting suggesting on-air ESPN talent played major roles in personnel changes that might have previously been made by executives rather than on-air figures. And while those moves may not be “dictated,” and still may be “made” by the executives, the reporting has indicated significant parts of those changes were based on the wishes of those on-air talents.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. On-air chemistry, and chemistry between on-air figures and behind-the-scenes figures like directors and producers, is incredibly important. And talent should absolutely at least have their opinions considered. People can and do vary in their stance on the degree to which those opinions should be considered and the impact they should have, but the base idea of viewpoint consideration isn’t bad. And even this specific producer/director move may not be bad; we’ll see how it works out, and if there’s less reporting that comes out about Aikman having issues with the new Mobley/Ackels team than there was about his issues with the previous team.
But part of what’s annoying around how this has played out is the denials from Druley and Buck that feel too strong, and feel like they don’t align with the reporting. And those comments don’t align with even a logical consideration of the situation, with no inside information whatsoever. It’s hard to believe that ESPN would spend $18 million a year on Aikman and then not care what he thought about his producer and director.
And yes, as demonstrated above, it’s possible to parse the Druley and Buck statements in a way that’s technically true that still matches the reporting on Aikman’s thoughts being a factor. But the feeling of their statements sure seems inclined to defend Aikman, and to imply he had less influence on the situation than the reporting seems to indicate. And they can take that tack if they want.
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And it’s not clear why Druley and Buck seem so committed to publicly minimizing Aikman’s role here. Perhaps there’s a concern that Aikman will wind up under wide criticism for this. But it seems unlikely the general public as a whole is too bothered by the idea of Aikman wanting to work with one particular director or producer versus another. Heck, Buck and Aikman have both spoken publicly about how much they cared about finding ways to continue to work together, so they played roles in personnel decisions there, with Wertheim telling AA “Candidly, I was surprised at the level” of how much Buck and Aikman wanted to stick together. It’s a little different when discussing a producer or director rather than an on-air counterpart, but it’s not that different; it’s just logical that talent have specific relationships (good or bad) with specific producers and directors, and that that’s considered in assignments, especially when that’s coming from a high-level talent the network has invested a lot in.
Another thing that’s interesting about this is that unlike some other word-parsing discussions, there seems to be less reason why this can’t be said publicly. Conference realignment, for example, is full of back-channel conversations that could carry major consequences for plenty of parties (schools, conferences, and networks) if they were on the record. ESPN very much does not want the picture of them heavily influencing realignment, and that’s understandable. And the Arizona State president is very much not going to say “Yeah, we’re planning to leave for the Big 12” on the record at a juncture where the Pac-12 media numbers aren’t even in yet, and that’s understandable. (The real remarkable candor there has come from Big 12 figures, actually, who are being surprisingly open about their targeting.)
But there don’t seem to be a whole lot of potential consequences from admitting Aikman’s feedback may have played a role in these personnel shifts. Everyone involved is an adult, everyone involved can like or not like working with who they want. In the cases of less-prominent on-air figures, that feedback is probably not going to lead to a lot of restructuring, and the decisions are probably going to be made more by the executives. But in the case of people as prioritized and invested in as Aikman, it only feels logical that their opinions will be part of any change at producer or director. And it’s not fully clear why Druley and Buck are so committed to insisting Aikman’s opinions weren’t heavily factored into this move.