In spiriting away Joe Buck and Troy Aikman from Fox Sports, ESPN has not only utterly transformed its Monday Night Football booth, but it has punched a ragged hole in its rival’s Sunday afternoon NFL showcase. And while both sides can make a case for having made all the right moves, the tectonic talent shift probably won’t have an outsized impact on the fall ratings scorecard.
While there will be much scrutiny as to how the Buck-Aikman transplant takes, establishing causality is next to impossible when it comes to gauging the impact a broadcast crew has on the Nielsen ratings. As sports ad sales execs never tire of saying, there’s no evidence that any booth combination since the halcyon days of Pat Summerall-John Madden has had a material impact on the size of the NFL TV audience.
And given the considerable schedule upgrade ESPN is about to enjoy in advance of its new media-rights deal, next season’s ratings likely would have improved even if Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick had remained on the case.
More to the point, ESPN sibling ABC now has a tested NFL crew in place when the Super Bowl returns to the Eye Network in 2026. The last time ABC hosted the Big Game was back in 2006, when the Steelers topped the Seahawks in front of 90.7 million viewers. Al Michaels and Madden called Super Bowl XL for ABC, which took place such a long time ago that the average cost of an in-game ad was just $2.5 million. (Michaels has been in talks to lead Amazon’s NFL coverage, but a deal has yet to be reached.)
Also of considerable interest to Nielsen scoreboard watchers is the ManningCast, which put up decent numbers in its first year as an alternative to the flagship MNF telecast. Hosted by Payton Manning and Eli Manning, the freewheeling show averaged 1.59 million viewers on ESPN2, accounting for 12% of the Bristol’s overall NFL deliveries.
It goes without saying that ESPN is paying the Mannings a bucketload of cash to put on their 10-week juggernaut, with estimates coming in at around $16 million to $18 million per year for the rocket-armed duo. All of which makes for a peculiar economic exercise, as the Mannings seek to siphon off as much as 15% of the audience from the two guys who are getting paid twice as much as they are.
ESPN can make this dynamic pay off via higher ad rates and by way of carving out unique sponsorship opportunities within the ManningCast itself, but the inherent contradictions of actively shrinking share at the pricey flagship telecast won’t make future staff cuts any easier to swallow.
For Fox, the loss of Buck and Aikman will be tempered by the sheer staying power of its Sunday NFL schedule, a series of afternoon doubleheaders with a national TV window that’s been the most-watched program on the tube for the last 13 years. Loaded with top draws like Dallas, Green Bay and Tampa Bay, Fox’s NFC-heavy slate perfectly aligns with its affiliate footprint, which includes eight of the top 10 largest U.S. media markets. While Fox hasn’t made the call as to who will step up to fill the gap on “America’s Game of the Week,” the leader of the network’s No. 2 NFL team, Kevin Burkhardt, seems like a shoe-in to reprise that role on the national stage.
Media buyers said they expect Fox’s NFL ratings to remain stratospheric, even if it may have to share more of the road with CBS. Increased scheduling flexibility and the ascendancy of the AFC’s explosive young quarterbacks could put CBS in position to interrupt Fox’s hegemonic run. Regardless of who is in the booth by the time the opening kickoff leaves the tee, the Sunday afternoon NFL ratings should continue to dwarf the primetime entertainment lineup, and the ad dollars will follow the eyeballs. (In the fall quarter, Fox’s national and local ad sales haul reached $2.41 billion, of which the NFL and college football contributed as much as $2 billion.)
In a statement released Wednesday, ESPN offered a thumbnail sketch of the Buck-Aikman partnership, noting that the two have called games together for the last 20 years, a span that includes six Super Bowl broadcasts. ESPN first lured Aikman over with a steroidal five-year, $92.5 million deal, whereupon it set its sights on Buck.
Fox gave the 52-year-old its blessing to negotiate with the Disney-owned cable sports outfit—this despite the fact that a year remained on his legacy contract—whereupon ESPN made Buck an offer he couldn’t refuse. Over the next five years, Buck will rake in some $75 million, which brings ESPN’s total investment in its booth upgrade to $167.5 million, or around $33.5 million per season.
That’s an awful lot of money to throw around on talent, especially for a company that has laid off nearly 1,000 staffers since 2015. But ESPN, which in recent years has struggled to field a must-see MNF broadcast team, said it couldn’t pass up the chance at grabbing the NFL’s most-scrutinized booth.
“When you have the opportunity to bring in the iconic, longest-running NFL broadcasting duo, you take it, especially at a time when we are on the cusp of a new era in our expanding relationship with the NFL,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and sports content, by way of announcing the acquisitions. “The NFL continues to ascend, and we now have more games than ever before, providing additional opportunities for Joe, Troy and our deep roster of commentators.”
News of Buck’s hire was first reported by the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand, who went after the story like a terrier worrying a chew toy.
In a recent appearance on Dallas’ KTCK-AM, Aikman revealed that Fox didn’t try to top ESPN’s offer. “It’s a strange set of circumstances that led me, I guess, to this point where I am now,” Aikman told The Ticket Sportsradio host Norm Hitzges. “When we couldn’t really reach what I felt was a fair value, I was able to negotiate an opt-out … and that’s what allowed me to be a free agent. And Fox never jumped into the game. They stayed where they were and never made an offer.
“In fact, I didn’t have any conversation with Fox until I got a call to congratulate me on my new deal,” Aikman went on to say, adding that as recently as six months ago he’d planned to re-enlist. But the white-hot TV market—along with ESPN, Amazon Prime Video has been casting around for seasoned broadcasters to helm its new Thursday Night Football production—made it imperative that Aikman test the waters.
While Fox seemed content to let Aikman go, the network did try to retain Buck’s services, although its offer was about $15 million shy of what ESPN was willing to fork over. In consideration of Fox’s decision to allow Buck and Aikman to negotiate with ESPN, Disney this fall will give the broadcast network first dibs on a marquee Big Ten football game. While it’s no Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the gesture should translate into a whole lot of eyeballs and ad dollars come September.