The NFL broadcast booth carousel this offseason year has received a lot of attention, and a fascinating aspect of that is how the attention has gone beyond traditional sports media circles to much wider sports circles. One example of that is Sports Illustrated dedicating last Monday’s “Daily Cover” (seen at right above) to a story by executive editor and senior writer Jon Wertheim on Joe Buck and Troy Aikman ahead of their first Monday Night Football game for ESPN, which opens with a discussion of this as “the most high-profile free-agency signing this NFL offseason.”
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) September 12, 2022
Wertheim spoke to AA about that story last week, and said he felt the Buck and Aikman move was worth covering at this level both for itself and for what it says about how important NFL broadcast booths have become.
“I feel like this kind of has been this encapsulation of how media has turned into its own vertical, its own beat,” he said. “People talk more about this booth change than player movement. And obviously the dollar figures seem to have caught up with that.”
And while that story came out ahead of the first game those broadcasters called for ESPN, Wertheim (seen at left above in his CBS News headshot; he’s been contributing to 60 Minutes since 2017, and did a particularly notable story on veteran sportswriter Dave Kindred in 2021) said how much discussion he saw of the broadcast booth during that Denver-Seattle game helped reinforce that this was a big deal.
“I was impressed by how much people seem to care and be talking about this. There was a fourth-down call and you had Russell Wilson against his old team, and still, at least in my social media silo and my web world, the Aikman-Buck debut and the ratings were as big a story as the outcome of the game.”
The Buck-Aikman move is only one of several that took place in the NFL broadcasting world this offseason, including Al Michaels heading from NBC to Amazon and being joined there by Kirk Herbstreit, Mike Tirico taking Michaels’ old NBC chair, and Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen taking over Fox’s No. 1 booth following the departure of Buck and Aikman. Wertheim said Aikman and Buck heading to ESPN stood out to him because of how seemingly unexpected it was.
“I had written a piece on Al several months ago before the Super Bowl. I think him to Amazon and Tirico to take over, people almost expected it earlier; the big story there was sort of that it took longer than people expected. This was a wild one.”
Wertheim has been at SI full-time since 1996, and has covered a wide variety of sports and athletes for the magazine. But doing a media-focused story this way was a little different compared to his usual focuses. He said past experience working with Michaels on 2014 book You Can’t Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television was helpful, though, as was working on the TV broadcasting side himself for Tennis Channel.
“I was Al Michaels’ collaborator/ghostwriter on his book, so I had some level of insight into even Monday Night Football history, the intrigue and so on. I had a meal with Al earlier this year, so I sort of had a little bit of background, I didn’t cover this totally flying blind. And I was actually doing TV for Tennis Channel during the period when I wrote this story, so I’d heard all this talk about the voice in your ear and coming in on the jib camera and how people don’t watch sports because of the broadcaster.”
As for that last comment on if people do or don’t watch because of announcers, that’s regularly discussed and debated in the sports media world. Wertheim said he thinks the differentiation is that yes, people might still watch without top-tier broadcasters, but that’s going to affect their viewing experience and how they discuss it.
“At some level, that’s true. You and I could call the Super Bowl and people would watch. But I do think more and more, and social media’s kind of an accelerator of that, more and more, the broadcast is a really relevant part of the experience.”
Wertheim said the scale of announcers’ contracts we’re seeing, especially with the NFL, is further indication that networks think who’s in the booth matters to their bottom line.
“On the one hand, we say ‘It doesn’t matter who’s calling the game, everybody’s just watching for the action.’ But if that is the case, you’re not spending that kind of money. There must be some kind of empirical reason why. And it’s not just Aikman and Buck; NFL broadcasting is a nice sector right now. People aren’t doing this because they’re philanthropic and these are nice guys; clearly there’s something in the data that says it does matter.”
An interesting part of Wertheim’s Buck-Aikman story was its focus on the chemistry between them, and how much that drove Buck to want to follow Aikman to ESPN. Wertheim said he didn’t necessarily expect that to be as big a factor as the broadcasters said it was.
“Candidly, I was surprised at the level [of their desire to keep working together]. I got the feeling that Buck was prepared to go at it with a new partner, but really didn’t want to, and did what he had to do to explore the other option. It sounds so cliché, but it really did take on the dimensions of a romantic couple, ‘Am I willing to go with my partner when he makes his move to a new job in a new place? I don’t want to be at the singles bar again.'”
Wertheim’s story also stands out from the many words previously written on Aikman and Buck for the specific intensity of the comments he got from them on three-man booths. Here’s some of that:
BUCK: There’s an energy that you feel off each other, and it’s never [through] eye contact. I don’t think I ever look at him in the eyes once the game starts. His eyes are here or in his monitor, or over here. I’m to his left. But if there’s something I want him to make sure that he hears, I’ll grab him by the forearm and go, “And that’s something, Troy, we talked about coming into this game: They have a tough time picking up the blitz,” or whatever. So it doesn’t get lost. That’s why three-man booths don’t work as well.
…BUCK: When we started, it was me, Troy and Cris Collinsworth. And those are two alphas that we’re all trying to fit in the same booth. One guy wants one set of replays, one guy wants the other. There’s not a lot of that unspoken energy field because there’s another person there, so it throws that whole thing out of whack. I would say that Troy and I were probably closer in that three-man situation than I was with Cris.
…Speed round. Fill in the blank: A three-man booth is ____.
Wertheim told AA the three-man booth discussion felt worth exploring to him, as it seems like something often discussed behind the scenes by broadcasters and production crews.
“There’s a lot of chatter about that, and I think that’s the kind of thing that the broadcasters, and their teams, and the guys in the control room talk about when they go out. And both of them also have spoken from experience. It’s one thing for us to say ‘Oh, it’s too awkward, you can’t make eye contact and get in a rhythm.’ …It’s weird, because in a way, the three-man booth had defined Monday Night Football, but also that was clearly something that ESPN has struggled with.”
Speaking of the production staffers, another interesting element Wertheim’s story touches on is the rehearsal preseason game Buck and Aikman did, which saw them call a couple of quarters from the booth but not for broadcast. Here’s what they told him on why that mattered:
AIKMAN: Well, we did a rehearsal game in Seattle. It wasn’t on air. Louis Riddick and Steve Levy and Dan Orlovsky did it for the actual network broadcast. But we were in the actual booth. It was really just a chance to meet some of the people who are in the booth so we didn’t walk in on opening night and not have a comfort level [with the crew]. We did a couple quarters and then headed out of the stadium and back home.
BUCK: Yeah, [this change] is not a small thing, because I’ve heard one voice football-wise for basically 20 years in my ear, counting me to break. I’ve heard that same voice lead me into a pre-produced package or a little video thing or jamming a graphic in. So now we have new people in our lives that we are really dependent on.
Wertheim told AA that is one notable new factor for Buck and Aikman, and it’s one that Michaels doesn’t have to deal with thanks to long-time NBC Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli also joining Amazon.
“It’s interesting because with Amazon, Al Michaels is not going through this drill. He has a new partner, obviously, but they brought over Fred Gaudelli and a lot of the NBC people.”
Wertheim said he thinks maintaining the Aikman-Buck on-air chemistry is probably a larger deal than working with new production staffers, though, especially as ESPN’s investment in Buck and Aikman means that the crew has a lot of reasons to support them however they can.
“I have to believe the comfort with each other, I think if anything the adjustment would be harder with a new partner than with a new voice in your ear saying ‘Five to break, let’s wrap up the spot.’ But I think the economics also inform that relationship at some level. When you’re in the truck, I suspect that it’s different than if these are two new hires for Tuesday night college football. I expect that every effort is being made to accommodate these guys.”
As per the overall importance of the Buck and Aikman move, Wertheim said it matters not just for the MNF broadcasts, but also for the wider context of the ESPN-NFL relationship.
“I think it’s a really big deal. Some of this fits into a broader story about ESPN and the NFL, and this is the network that’s had a fairly rocky relationship with the biggest American sport. And now that relationship is repaired, and there’s a Super Bowl coming, and there are eight-figure contracts being lavished on these broadcasters. And the lineup of games is going to be better for ESPN.”
“I think this is a significant story, and I understand why this offseason move has got the attention it did. At some level, the guy watching at home may not care as much, but I think as a sports business story, given the strides ESPN has made with the NFL, given the landscape and the ManningCast, I think there’s a lot going on here. This was a big bet by ESPN, and therefore a big story. ”
He said it fits into the growing importance of the media side of sports as well.
“To me, it’s just kind of the apotheosis. Sports media has probably been an undercovered beat for too long. This is just another indication that this stuff really matters.”
Wertheim’s story can be read in full here.