When news broke that Tom Brady had already agreed to become the chief NFL analyst for Fox Sports upon his (next) retirement from football, it immediately led to an obvious rhetorical question.
This guy doesn’t really enjoy being a stay-at-home dad, does he?
The leaked salary figures – a total of $375 million over 10 years – are sure enough to make anyone reconsider the allure of, say, grooming the perfect lawn and learning to play guitar in retirement, but Brady, 44, has… He actually stretched his playing career to previously unimaginable lengths, and it didn’t take his first retirement. He obviously loves to have things on his calendar, even in the long run, and even if it’s like getting ridiculous amounts of money to say things like “That’s a big play here, Kevin,” every Sunday.
But there’s another rhetorical question this news raises, one I can’t even begin to explain: Why do these networks want to pay so much money to NFL analysts? The economy here is really baffling.
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This trend only began a couple of years ago, when CBS gave Tony Romo over $17 million a year to be Jim Nantz’s super-thriller. The NFL analysts’ money was already ridiculous, with Jon Gruden reportedly being ESPN’s highest-paid employee at $6.5 million a year to be quite a nice commentator, but Romo’s deal was so big that it’s so confusing. No one had started his radio career creating as much excitement as Romo, with his talent for reading line-ups and calling plays before picking up the ball, but the novelty of that fascination had already faded by the time he got his mega-lift. More importantly, the question was whether Romo affected CBS’ NFL ratings at all. The answer is: definitely not.
The NFL is a terribly successful television producer. In the US, eight of the top 10 most-watched broadcasts of 2021 were from NFL games, and one of the other two was a mediocre drama broadcast right after the Super Bowl that garnered millions of viewers who simply slept or fainted. The NFL games were 13 of the top 15 of the show, and 16 of the top 20. Even in the Olympic year, where six of the top 40 broadcasts of American exploits were in Tokyo, the NFL had 26 games in the top 40.
People will be watching the NFL in huge numbers because that’s what they do, no matter what ex-player in the booth introduces a lot of germs. How many of these 26 NFL games are in the top 40 that featured Tony Romo’s work? The first: the exciting AFC Championship between Kansas City and Buffalo. The rest were either playoffs on other networks, or regular season matches on Sundays or Thursdays. On Sunday afternoons, with Romo and Nantz doing most of their work, the audience is naturally divided between games according to regional preferences. The best match usually gets the most viewers, but no one will watch Jaguars-Texans over the Chiefs-Broncos if a storm hits and Romo and Nantz are stranded in Jacksonville, poor things.
However, it’s Sunday afternoon window that FOX just screwed up the craziness, promising Brady all that money even though he’s never been an analyst, and throughout his long career, it’s a pretty lackluster quote. When he finally retires, will he join the FOX game on a late Sunday afternoon because they want to hear Brady’s visions? No, they will watch the game, or games, that have the teams they love, that they have bet the most money on, or that have players on their fantasy teams.
But that didn’t stop the NFL analyst’s arms race. ESPN gave Troy Aikman $18 million a year to leave FOX for its Monday Night Football show, even though those games have the NFL window to themselves. It’s possible that ESPN just decided to hit cash on Aikman in a daze because, after they also brought in longtime partner Joe Buck to join him, they ended decades of people complaining about the multinational force booth. But as much as the MNF was free jazz to the booths, full of weird experiences and weird partnerships, the real drawback was its penchant for inferior games. Viewers won’t flock to Monday nights between 1-7 Falcons and 3-4 Panthers just because Aikman and Buck are there to document their shoddy quarterback.
The prevailing theory about NFL analysts’ inflation is that the networks are spending such huge amounts because the NFL is a big business and they want to be seen as serious partners. CBS didn’t want to lose its new star in Romo, so they gave him crazy money, and now other broadcasters are doing the same so they don’t seem less committed to the NFL, which is the only confirmed TV producer in existence. But that’s a lot of money to spend just to keep up with appearances.
The winner in all of this is NBC, who lost Michaels to Amazon, who plundered him to be the voice of the new Thursday Night Football package. What massive deal did they hand out to new talent to replace him? Nobody. They moved Mike Terriko, who was already working for them, to the SNF booth.
Which is only logical. People will be watching Sunday Night Football anyway. There are no other NFL games running.