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Joe Buck and Troy Aikman cash in at ESPN as the NFL broadcaster arms race continues

Joe Buck, left, and analyst Troy Aikman are leaving Fox for ESPN -- and for massive raises. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

NFL broadcasters may owe Jason Witten a gift basket.

Four years ago, the star tight end retired from the Dallas Cowboys to join ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” booth to much fanfare. His salary was a reported $4 million — which, back then, was a lot.

Witten, though, was a bust.

He was clumsy. He mispronounced names, misused the telestrator and lit up social media with every gaffe. After one season, he returned to the Cowboys.

ESPN, still wanting to juice its Monday booth, made a big play that offseason for free agent Tony Romo, the former Cowboys quarterback who had become the shiniest new toy in NFL broadcasting, famous for predicting plays. Romo re-signed with CBS rather than jump to ESPN. But he got a raise — a big raise, with his annual salary jumping from around $3 million to something in the neighborhood of a staggering $17 million, in no small part because ESPN bid up the price.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, when ESPN made it official that it had swiped Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, the faces of rival Fox’s NFL coverage, to be its new Monday night pair. Aikman will eclipse Romo’s annual salary, according to a person with knowledge of the deal. Buck could approach $15 million per year, according to a person with knowledge of that deal. (ESPN declined to comment on the terms.)

Aikman and Buck aren’t the only football broadcasters cashing in. Al Michaels, who just called the Super Bowl for NBC, could be headed to Amazon for a rumored $10 million per year, where he could team with Kirk Herbstreit, best known as ESPN’s top college football analyst, who is expected to moonlight on Amazon’s Thursday night telecasts. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

NBC’s lead NFL analyst, Cris Collinsworth, recently got a raise to a reported $12.5 million. And Romo’s broadcast partner, Jim Nantz, makes more than $10 million now, too. (Most, if not all, of the moves and dollar figures were first reported by the New York Post.)

The Ringer christened this moment of musical chairs and flying bags of cash as the "Announcer Empowerment Era.”

One way to understand these unprecedented moves is to go back to Romo’s industry-altering contract and untangle the two intersecting storylines that led to it and continued to shape the broadcasting industry this winter: the continued dominance of the all-powerful NFL and ESPN’s evolving relationship with the league.

Romo hit free agency at the perfect moment. ESPN’s then-new president, Jimmy Pitaro, was clear in 2018 that his top goal was to reset the network’s relationship with the NFL after it had bristled at some of ESPN’s coverage under previous president John Skipper. Witten, in the spring of 2018, was the first major hire of the Pitaro era.

That summer, Pitaro said at his first meeting with reporters: “I’ve spent a lot of time with league executives. The relationship is incredibly important to us.” A few months later, an ESPN investigative story pilloried the dysfunction of the Cleveland Browns, after which Pitaro flew to Ohio to smooth over the team’s concerns in person. (ESPN has continued to report on league business, including Don Van Natta Jr.’s recent report that the Cowboys reached a $2.4 million settlement after a team executive was accused of filming cheerleaders in their locker room.)

Romo’s free agency also came just a year before the league was set to begin negotiating its new rights deals. Pitaro and ESPN wanted in on the Super Bowl rotation and better games for Monday night. CBS wanted to retain its Sunday afternoon package in the new rights shuffle. And while the amount of money the networks paid always carries the day, everyone involved knew the NFL cares deeply about how its games are broadcast. All of that helped Romo cash in.

A year ago, the NFL inked those new rights deals, and they were massive. ESPN is paying $2.7 billion per year for “Monday Night Football” and multiple Super Bowls. Fox, NBC and CBS are paying around $2 billion for their games, basically doubling their previous deals. But what else could a network do? The NFL accounted for 75 of the top 100 TV broadcasts last year. Through that lens, announcer spending could be chalked up to a line item on the marketing budget.

“This could only happen in the NFL,” said Bob Costas, a former sportscaster who spent decades at NBC. “The best person working in hockey or basketball or baseball, they don’t even have two comparable options, let alone five. Football reigns over not just sports but over all of American entertainment.”

Aikman wanted to beat Romo’s deal since the day Romo signed it, according to multiple people with knowledge of his thinking. And ESPN was happy to accommodate him when Pitaro learned he was available thanks to an opt-out in his contract. ESPN had moved on from Witten, but last season’s Monday night crew of Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese didn’t have the name-brand cachet as Buck and Aikman, who will now earn north of $30 million combined. (ESPN is also paying the Manning brothers to do their popular Monday night alternate broadcast.)

The value of these broadcasts helps explain why the biggest announcers are in such demand. It also doesn’t hurt that newcomer Amazon, which dropped $1 billion for the NFL’s Thursday night package, entered the sweepstakes. And finding recognizable stars who have the experience to match is difficult. Newcomers are not sure bets. Romo is a hit, Witten was a bust, and Drew Brees is off to a rough start — hence the interest in old standbys such as Buck and Aikman.

Still, with so much money getting thrown at announcers, is there any measurable return on investment? Maybe over the life of the deal, the NFL tosses ESPN some higher-quality Monday night games. But almost no one is tuning in for the announcers.

“I never saw a scintilla of evidence that people in the booth change the ratings even by a smidgen,” said Skipper, now the CEO of a new venture called Meadowlark Media, during a recent appearance on partner Dan Le Batard’s podcast. “The race to hire people is mostly about internal pride, right? We want to present a good game, we want the media to suggest we have a great booth, and the people who can do this very well are very rare.”

Neal Pilson, a former head of CBS Sports, said he used to look at research that seemed to show that viewers would stick with blowouts longer when John Madden was calling games in his heyday. But there was no definitive proof. ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said the network had no research that showed announcers had any impact on ratings.

There was also little belief that there would be much trickle-down from the highest salaries for anyone besides the biggest names — the latest example in sports media that the brightest stars can command higher and higher salaries.

Consider, a former ESPN programming executive noted, that just a few years ago ESPN didn’t have anyone making more than around $7 million. Now the network has three people well above $10 million: Stephen A. Smith, Aikman and Buck.

What to read about the NFL

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Exclusive: An employee of Washington’s NFL team accused Snyder of asking for sex, groping her and attempting to remove her clothes, according to legal correspondence obtained by The Post. A team investigation concluded the woman was lying in an attempt to extort Snyder.

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