When the news broke that Tom Brady had already agreed to become the lead NFL analyst for Fox Sports upon his (next) retirement from football, it immediately led to an obvious rhetorical question.
That guy really does not enjoy being a stay-at-home dad, huh?
Certainly the leaked salary numbers — a reported total package of US$375-million over 10 years — are enough to make anyone reconsider the appeal of, say, grooming the perfect lawn and learning to play the guitar in one’s retirement, but Brady, 44, has already stretched his playing career to previously unthinkable lengths, and his first retirement did not take. Evidently, he likes to have things on his calendar, even in the long term, and even if it amounts to getting paid absurd amounts to say things like “This is a big play here, Kevin,” every Sunday.
But there is another rhetorical question that this news raises, and it’s one that I cannot even begin to explain: Why do these networks want to pay their NFL analysts so much money? The economics here are truly baffling.
Scott Stinson: Does Bill Belichick know something the rest of NFL does not?
Scott Stinson: Aaron Rodgers’ selfish decision to remain unvaccinated in team-first NFL
It’s a trend that began just a couple of years ago, when CBS gave Tony Romo more than US$17-million per year to be the extremely excitable foil to Jim Nantz. NFL analyst money had already been silly, with Jon Gruden reportedly the highest-paid ESPN employee at US$6.5-million annually to be a perfectly bland commentator, but the Romo deal was so large as to invite serious confusion. No one had begun his broadcasting career making as much of a splash as Romo, with his knack for reading formations and calling plays before the snap of the ball, but the novelty of that wizardry had already worn off by the time he was given his massive raise. More fundamentally, the question was whether Romo affected CBS’ NFL ratings at all. And the answer is: Almost certainly not.
The NFL is a monstrously successful television product. In the United States, eight of the top 10 most-watched broadcasts in 2021 were NFL games, and one of the other two was a bang-average drama that aired immediately after the Super Bowl and which garnered millions of viewers who had simply fallen asleep or passed out. NFL games were 13 of the top 15 shows, and 16 of the top 20. Even in an Olympic year, where six of the top 40 broadcasts were of American exploits in Tokyo, the NFL had 26 games in the top 40.
People are going to watch the NFL in massive numbers because that’s what they do, regardless of which former player is in the booth offering bon mots. How many of those 26 NFL games in the top 40 involved the work of Tony Romo? One: the AFC championship thriller between Kansas City and Buffalo. The rest were either playoff games on other networks, or regular-season games on Sundays or Thursdays. On Sunday afternoons, where Romo and Nantz do the bulk of their work, the viewing audience is naturally split between games according to regional preference. The best match up will usually get the most viewers, but no one would watch Jaguars-Texans over Chiefs-Broncos if a storm blew in and stranded Romo and Nantz in Jacksonville, the poor things.
And yet, it is the Sunday afternoon window that FOX has gone bonkers over, promising Brady all that money even though he has never been an analyst before and, throughout his long career, been an exceedingly dull quote. When he eventually does retire, will anyone tune into FOX’s late Sunday afternoon marquee game because they want to hear Brady’s insights? No, they will watch the game, or games, that involve the teams they most like, or on which they have gambled the most money, or which involve players on their fantasy teams.
But that hasn’t stopped the NFL-analyst arms race. ESPN gave Troy Aikman a reported US$18-million a year to leave FOX for its Monday Night Football program, even though those games have the NFL window to themselves. It is possible that ESPN just decided to money-whip Aikman into a daze because, having also brought long-time partner Joe Buck to join him, they have ended literal decades of people complaining about the MNF booth. But as much as MNF has been the free jazz of booths, full of weird experimentation and odd partnerships, the real flaw has been its tendency toward lousy games. Viewers will not flock to Monday Night between the 1-7 Falcons and the 3-4 Panthers just because Aikman and Buck are there to document the lousy quarterback play.
The prevailing theory about NFL analyst inflation is that the networks are spending these giant sums because the NFL is big business and they want to be seen as Serious Partners. CBS didn’t want to lose its new star in Romo, so it gave him crazy money, and now other broadcasters are doing the same thing so they don’t look less committed to the NFL, which is the only sure-thing television product in existence. But that’s a lot of money to spend just to keep up appearances.
The winner in all this is NBC, which lost Al Michaels to Amazon, who poached him to be the voice of its new Thursday Night Football package. What massive deal did they hand out to new talent to replace him? None. They moved Mike Tirico, who already worked for them, into the SNF booth.
Which only makes sense. People will watch Sunday Night Football anyway. There are no other NFL games on.