It brought to mind the immediate reaction after ESPN paid Jon Gruden $6.5 million a year to call “Monday Night Football” (and make “Gruden’s QB Camp” specials) before he left to coach the Raiders. Couldn’t the network find a cheaper alternative? Fans may be irritated or enthralled when they hear a certain broadcaster’s voice, but aren’t NFL fans going to watch “Monday Night Football” regardless of who is in the booth? Isn’t it a waste of money?
“That’s a good question,” said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who now runs the consulting firm Pilson Communications. “The industry wrestles with that. I’ve been in the business for about 50 years. There are a few on-air sports personalities that people want to listen to and want to watch. You can probably count them on one hand.”
Nobody would deny that a great analyst improves the experience of watching a game, and that an overly chatty or dull, cliché-addled color commentator makes you want to hurl a remote at the wall. But sports fans are tuning into the game for the a different reason.
“The game is like a great meal,” said Gerry Matalon, who spent 27 years as ESPN executive developing and coaching on-air talent who now runs the media training company Matalon Media. “The announcers are the server of the meal. They enhance the experience. The value of any particular announcer, to media executives and decision-makers, is always subjective. In the end, I’ve never watched a game because of the announcers. However, I’ve enjoyed a game more because of the announcers.”
Still, Pilson said networks have good reason to shell out money for broadcasters they believe can excel. It is easy for sports fans to say they’re only tuning for a game, but it’s harder to remember what makes them keep watching or click elsewhere. While Pilson agreed that announcers rarely bring an audience, he also said they can either lose it or keep it. Monday night, Pilson said, he grew annoyed with a baseball broadcasting duo, and so he flipped to a hockey game.
“There are a substantial number of good, or very good, people in the business who provide extra comfort, extra enjoyment,” Pilson said. “It’s hard to measure whether they bring an audience. But they certainly keep an audience. If talent doesn’t seem to know what’s going on in the game, or if the talent talks too much or not enough, people drift away.”
What’s hard to know, and what makes the high salaries reportedly offered to Gruden and Witten, is how to quantify that impact. Former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, a close friend of Witten’s who left his playing career for the top CBS analyst spot last year, was roundly hailed for his deep knowledge, sharp analysis, predictive powers and enthusiasm.
“He helps CBS get ratings,” Pilson said. “Can we identify if that’s 2 percent, or 3 percent? 5? 10? No. No one can.”
ESPN, surely, would take any ratings help it can get. Ratings for “Monday Night Football” dropped last season, but trying to deduce the precise reason, or whether the broadcast itself played a role, is a snake pit. Poor matchups surely hurt; a small but statistically significant percentage of fans blamed players kneeling for the national anthem and/or the league’s response; television networks have seen ratings plummet across the board. ESPN pays $2 billion for NFL rights, so perhaps a few million dollars here or there is quibbling for the network. (ESPN reportedly tried to lure Peyton Manning with a $10 million per year offer.)
Witten makes for an unusual case, for a few reasons. He was a tremendous player and came off as well-spoken in interviews, but he is not a megastar, or famous beyond football. He will likely become one of the highest-paid employees at ESPN, which has been laying off well-liked staffers, both on and off camera, ostensibly for financial reasons. The “Monday Night Football” franchise was already in flux, with Sean McDonough out as play-by-play man and Joe Tessitore in.
Witten’s hiring also makes him, remarkably, the fourth prominent NFL color man who fits into a specific box. Four of the top six or seven in-booth analysts now share the same profile: a white ex-player who spent his entire career with the Dallas Cowboys. (Witten joins Daryl Johnston, Troy Aikman and Romo in that category.)
There is another pattern that warrants both mention and further examination: CBS, Fox, ESPN and NBC employed 17 regular NFL broadcast teams in 2017. Only three of the analysts — CBS’s James Lofton and Fox’s Ronde Barber and Charles Davis — were black, despite it being a job that draws primarily from a pool of ex-players in a league that is roughly 70 percent black.
In a sense, Witten is a substantial risk: He’s never done the job before, and will be stepping into a highly prominent job. In another light, his general blandness and similarity to so many other NFL color analysts make him a safe pick.
Another factor: There is not unanimity about who will make a good broadcaster, even among the people doing the hiring. Fill a room with 10 television executives, Pilson said, and all 10 would probably agree on which sporting events are good buys. But there could be wild disagreement about who would make for — and even who is — a quality broadcaster.
“Talent is a much more subjective judgment,” Pilson said.
So it may be impossible to say whether Witten will be any good in the booth, making it even harder to determine whether he’s worth a salary exceeding $4 million. In any event, we will be listening to Witten in the fall. At least then, we can stop talking about him.
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