Getting Paid to Call a Game

Why do networks pay their top sports broadcasters so much?  It’s a part of the business that continues to mystify me.  Increasingly it seems that conversations – and decision making – about the appropriate compensation for the “face of the network” are out of touch with reality.

I thought of this when I read the news about Jim Nantz’s new contract at CBS.  Some reports have him making north of $10 million, putting him on par with Joe Buck at Fox and Mike Tirico at NBC.

For the record, I think Nantz is the best of the bunch and deserves to earn as much, if not more, than anyone else in a similar role.  It’s hard to imagine a Masters without his signature “Hello friends” greeting.

But here’s the thing, I’d still watch the Masters without Jim Nantz.  I’d watch the Olympics without Tirico.  Same for NFL football and the World Series without Buck.  It’s true my experience may not be as good, but I’m not tuning in for the announcers.  The fact is the networks are paying outsized dollars to men who have no impact on the primary metric by which we evaluate sports television media:  ratings.

It’s important to distinguish between the roles different on-air personalities play at their respective networks.  For example, I understood why ESPN signed Stephen A. Smith to significant new contract, reportedly $8 million a year, in 2019.  Regardless of what you think of him (I’m a fan), Smith drives an audience without covering an event.  He is a multimedia property unto himself and merits the investment.  Big time sports broadcasters like Nantz, Buck and Tirico are at the best of the best, but they don’t drive an audience. 

I raise this not to criticize three men I respect who possess hard-earned skills, but to me its reveals a mindset in our business that feels increasingly archaic and out of step with the times. 

Nothing gets the juices flowing in the halls of power at media companies like deal making.  Acquiring rights, content, talent…the chase of big trophies is incredibly exciting.  And nerve wracking.  I can only imagine the pressures and stresses that come in the midst of a contract negotiation for a top prize like Jim Nantz when there is the very real possibility of losing him to another network.  Nobody at CBS (or Fox or NBC) wants to be responsible for seeing their signature talent holding a microphone branded with a competitor’s logo.  I wouldn’t.

But in 2021 should paying a sportscaster eight figures who does nothing to move the rating outweigh other challenges facing networks?  Thousands of people in the business have lost their jobs in the past year in the name of cost cutting.  Covid has created new realities for all of us.  But the truth is that practically none of the people impacted make anywhere close to what networks pay their top broadcasters.  Could more people have kept their jobs if top talent took a pay cut? 

To be fair, very often top talent are the first to object when their off camera colleagues get laid off.  And talent was not completely immune from the impact of cost cutting at some networks.

There has been important reckoning recently over the historic unequal treatment of women at networks.  Throwing so much money at top male talent only heightens the pay gap between male and female announcers in the business.  If we can agree that sports fans will still watch a game even if their preferred announcer isn’t working the event – as the data consistently proves – why not spread that money around and put more women in the big chairs?

Quality broadcasters and color analysts certainly enhance the experience for viewers.  But they aren’t the thing itself.  They never have been and never will.  The business has changed dramatically in the past 12 months.  The way network’s value talent needs to be recalibrated to match the new realities of the business.  “Just because we did it that way in the past doesn’t mean that’s the way we do it today,” is a common refrain among executives.  That should apply to all aspects of the business, including the faces that greet us when we turn on a game.

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