The deal will make Brady the highest paid sports broadcaster by some distance. It’s twice the record-breaking amount CBS handed to Tony Romo in 2020, and almost three times as much as the Disney company pays Stephen A Smith to function as a one-person network over at ESPN. In fact, it’s a contract that would make Brady the eighth highest-paid player in the NFL. He is, in essence, leaving $15m on the table this year so that he can keep playing football for the Bucs.
The figures are jarring. You have to hand it to him, Brady seems intent to earn back every cent he left on the football table when penning team-friendly deal after team-friendly deal in New England.
It’s a move that represents where sports broadcasting is heading. As recently as five years ago, the game’s most decorated star leaving the field to take a job calling games from the booth would have been beneath Brady’s station. Now, being a lead NFL analyst, working 20 on-air days a year, earning a salary that matches or betters the game’s top players, is a cushy, comfortable, lucrative, part-time gig. In the streaming age, live sports are king. And holding onto those live sporting rights is everything.
The timing of the announcement was telling. It was not released with a glossy media packet or via a social media push. It was announced by Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch during an investor call. Make no mistake, this was a move for investors, not viewers. For those who invest in Fox’s publicly traded stock, and those who invest in buying ad time on Fox Sports.
Announcers do not shift the metrics on games. No one tunes in or out (in big enough numbers to make a difference) on any given matchup because of who or how a game is called. The game is the attraction, the announcers just help elevate or deflate the atmosphere. Talking on the South Beach Session podcast, John Skipper, the former head of ESPN, said that internal data at the company showed who was calling the game made little difference to audience figures. “I never saw a scintilla of evidence that the people in the booth changed the ratings even by a smidgen,” Skipper said. “The race to hire people is mostly about internal pride.”
Hiring famous faces to yap about games is about prestige and ego. The hope for Fox is that Tom Brady being Tom Brady will sprinkle stardust on the network, attracting a couple of extra million dollars in ad revenue here and there from executives who just want to get in the room with Tom Bleeping Brady, no matter what the audience numbers say.
Most importantly it helps maintain a company’s standing with the league. With Amazon having fully entered the NFL rights world, the rest of the legacy outfits are jockeying for position to make sure they’re not cut out of any future NFL rights deal as more games and more broadcasts are handed to the Bezos-backed upstart. And that’s why salaries have ballooned since Romo signed his $17m per year extension with CBS, kicking off this summer’s arms race: Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit joining Amazon; Buck and Aikman moving to ESPN; Fox landing Brady.
Hiring famous people does not necessarily help or improve the broadcast – often it does the opposite. But hiring famous people helps the broadcast network maintain its rights package. For what constitutes pennies on the overall Fox Corp balance sheet, Brady will help future-proof the company against streaming companies eating into their rights package, the loss of which would cost billions.
With none of the legacy partners wanting to be left holding the bag, networks have doubled down on big names and quarterbacks in the booth. What position did they play? Who did they play for? There is a reason former Dallas Cowboys – Romo; Jason Witten – are offered the chance to skip the line. It’s about name recognition over talent or experience.
If you were, say, Amazon Sports, with an unlimited budget, looking to build the most compelling broadcast, would you not try something different, something creative? Would the Gusgasm, in all its viral glory, not be at the top of your wants list? How about Aqib Talib, the most interesting voice currently on NFL broadcasts? Has he not earned one of the top chairs at a network? And where’s the pipeline of Hall of Fame tackles, who can analyze, in real time, what’s going on at the line of scrimmage, the area of the field that most often decides games?
Instead, Amazon settled for the tried-and-true formula. It chose not to take any risks, either to break the traditional construct of an in-game booth or to build around fresh names. It chose Al Michaels, still the best play-by-play announcer in the game even as he nears 80. And then it offered around a package to any of the advert-getting names in the business, settling on college football’spremier voice because of his Q Score.
If nothing else, Brady’s elevation directly to the top booth of a typically stale, typically white broadcasts confirms that the networks continue to view the old way as The Way. There will be little to no innovation. It will be two guys – sometimes three – in a booth: The over-eager announcer; the thanks-for-the-check ex-player. Even as companies and sports scramble to try to replicate the success of the ManningCast, it will still serve as the second or third option. It’s a neat side project, something to show the cool kids on social media that you’re trying to be different. The real show, the ad-backed show, the investor-backed show, the show for an audience of 32 NFL owners, will still feature a Hall of Famer, likely one who played with a star on the side of his helmet, or who has enough rings to cover two hands.
What kind of announcer will Brady be? Early Romo set the standard for modern in-game analysts with his infectious enthusiasm and gift for predicting plays. He knew the players and schemes around the league intimately having just stepped off the field, and relished sharing his knowledge with the viewing public. Brady will walk into the booth with a similar command, whether he has the through-the-mic charm is open for debate.
After 23 years in the league, he appears comfortable in his own skin. Outside of the Patriots cult of no-personality, Brady has bared his teeth a little and has made his personality more public. He has as much on-camera experience as any player attempting the move. He just wrapped up a 10-part infomercial for ESPN. The most interesting analysis during NFL Films’ 100-year anniversary series came with Brady breaking down plays alongside Bill Belichick. Watching and dissecting plays in real-time is a different deal, though, requiring a different skill set. But this is Tom Brady, walking football machine. The job is to talk about and analyze football, and he’s pretty good at that.
Brady has no contemporary in the media space, save, perhaps, for Peyton Manning. He is the most famous celebrity the game has produced, one of the few who crosses continents and sports. He is also the most important and impactful player of the last 20 years. People will want to hear what he has to say. Stepping from the field to the booth should mean he can offer some Romo-esque insights from the jump. And by handing him the biggest contract in sports media history, Fox has locked in its own NFL future.
Some Hall of Famers retire into the grind of coaching or the executive life. Some shill copper bands or the Itch Stopper. Brady will stay selling Football and Sundays – and will be paid like Russell Wilson to do so.
As always, the NFL’s ultimate winner stays winning.