SBJ/January 16-22, 2012/Media

Tough talk

Pay cut, hectic schedule can make broadcasting career a challenging transition for ex-players, coaches

Michael Strahan seemed to fit right in with longtime Fox NFL analysts Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson when he began his broadcast career straight out of retirement following a Super Bowl win in 2008. But for the first few weeks of his new job, the seven-time Pro Bowler was dying inside.

“I don’t want to say from day one I was comfortable, because I wasn’t,” Strahan said recently. “I was scared to death.”

He even thought, back in those first fall weeks of the 2008 season, that if his new broadcast job didn’t work out, he’d simply move on and try to get another job in the NFL.

“We wanted to create an atmosphere [like] if a viewer was sitting at a bar. It would be almost like that: guys talking ball at a bar.”
— ED GOREN
Fox Sports vice chairman

Photo by: FOX SPORTS
Four years later, Strahan loves his job — and is a shining example of a former star athlete who has made the transition from the field to TV.

Many former players, as well as coaches, see broadcasting as a relatively easy second career. To hear those who have done it (and their agents) tell the story, though, it’s anything but. Odd and long hours, travel, and the need for a different kind of game-day preparation than they were used to on the field are constants.

And then, of course, there’s the pay cut.

“[Players] have to understand: Everybody is not going to make the big money,” said Keyshawn Johnson, who joined ESPN in 2007 after an 11-year NFL career.

On this point, agents, network executives and broadcasters are in agreement. When it comes to going from the playing field to a broadcast booth or set, players and coaches will make far less money than they did with their on-field jobs. How much less is another matter, because unlike players’ salaries — which for the four major team sports are publicly known and reported — the salaries for sports broadcasters are not nearly as visible.

“It’s funny: In this industry, I don’t know what other people make,” said Heath Evans, the former fullback who retired last year after a decade-long career and now works as an analyst for the NFL Network. “In the NFL, I knew what everyone makes. [In broadcasting], there is speculation, but nobody knows.” Evans said he took a reduction in pay when he joined the NFL Network but would not say how much.

STRAHAN’S DAY

During the NFL season, a typical work week for Strahan starts on a Thursday, when he and the rest of the Fox team holds a conference call to talk about what is going on in the NFL that week. It’s a pretty casual call and generally lasts only 15 to 30 minutes, Strahan said.

“We talk kind of about what the stories of the week are,” he said. “We talk about what we are doing. Jimmy is talking about fishing. Terry is talking about farming, cows and horses.”

On Sunday, Strahan’s day starts early in Los Angeles. He usually gets to the Fox studios — along with Long, Bradshaw and Johnson — about 5:30 a.m. local time. “If we are lucky and they throw us a bone, we come in at 6,” Strahan said.

Strahan began his broadcast career straight out of retirement following a Super Bowl win in 2008.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
Strahan is the only one on the team who lives in Los Angeles, so he doesn’t have to fly into town to do the show.

“We go on stage at 7 for a little rehearsal and camera shots,” he said. “We watch all the features that are going to be on the show.”

Then comes make-up and getting dressed for the show. Usually there are guests who come to watch the show including, sometimes, people who have won the chance to watch the show through some sort of charity.

The show starts live at 9 a.m. (noon ET). “Yeah, you sit in the chair for an hour, but you get to stand up,” Strahan said. “The hour goes fast.”

After that hour, at 10 a.m. in Los Angeles, the first NFL games start. The Fox crew rolls out what Strahan calls “a wall of TVs,” and he and his co-hosts watch the games from the set. They also can watch the action in the green room, though, or sometimes, Strahan said, he watches the games in his dressing room, kicking back on his couch. Depending on the day and whether or not Fox has a doubleheader, Strahan and his co-hosts will end up doing a halftime show for the early games, a postgame show for those first games, a halftime show for the second game, and then “The OT” postgame show.

Short days end at 4:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. ET); long days end about 5:30 p.m. After that, Strahan is officially off again until that Thursday conference call. He said he looks forward to every Sunday.

“I walk in at 5:30 and I feel like I am walking in to have fun and hang out with the fellas,” Strahan said. “It’s a fun day and a great job.”

Retired players and coaches take jobs in broadcasting because it keeps them close to the game, Strahan said, and it gives them something to do when their on-field careers are over. “What are you going to do?” he said. “You are going to watch the games anyway. You might as well get paid for it.”

VIEW OF THE TOP

While no one could provide exact figures, multiple broadcast talent experts said that of the hundreds of people working in on-air sports jobs, there are a handful of on-air personalities who make the most money, and none is a former professional athlete. Four men stand above the crowd and are considered the highest-paid broadcasters in the U.S., these experts say: Bob Costas and Al Michaels at NBC, Joe Buck at Fox, and Jim Nantz at CBS. According to multiple sources, Costas, Michaels, Buck and Nantz each earns in the range of $5 million a year. Several sources said that of the four, Costas earns the most, as he works not only multiple major sporting events for NBC, but he also works for MLB Network.

IMG represents Costas and Nantz, and Sandy Montag, senior corporate vice president and managing director, IMG Clients, would not comment. Marvin Demoff, longtime NFL player agent and broadcast agent who represents both Michaels and Buck, also would not comment on his clients’ salaries.

“The people who make a lot of money are people who do multiple sports, big events and are on major networks,” said Octgaon President Phil de Picciotto.

After Costas, Michaels, Buck and Nantz, industry sources say there’s a steep drop-off in salary but still a definite pecking order. Chris Berman and Mike Tirico at ESPN, according to several agents, are considered the next-highest-paid network talent, with their salaries pegged at about $3 million a year. Agent Lou Oppenheim, who represents Berman, and Montag, who represents Tirico, would not comment. The top 10 game analysts would probably be next in a ranking of pay, agents said, followed then by second-tier play-by-play announcers.

Over-the-air networks generally pay more, but not always, the agents said.

“ESPN is not going to take a back seat to anybody,” said one agent who asked not to be named because he does business with all the networks.

Agents said whether an in-studio, pregame-show analyst (such as Fox’s Bradshaw, Long, Johnson or Strahan) or an on-site game analyst (such as Troy Aikman) makes more money can vary. A top pregame show analyst and a network’s No. 1 game analyst could draw between $500,000 and $2 million a year, agents said, depending on a number of factors, including popularity, the broadcaster’s time with the network and when the deal was signed.

Ed Goren, vice chairman of Fox Sports Media Group, would not comment on what Fox spends on its pregame analysts but he said they have been instrumental in the success of the NFL on Fox.

“The thing about salaries,” Goren said, “I heard something yesterday … that whoever gets the Regis Philbin job is going to be paid between $5 million and $8 million a year, and we are nowhere near that. In many respects, the salaries [of sports broadcasters] have not escalated that dramatically in 20 years.”

CONTINUITY PAYS OFF

One reason sports broadcasters’ salaries are rarely reported is that broadcasters don’t change jobs or networks that often. In sports, top athlete free agents get huge contracts when multiple teams bid for their services; the number of potential buyers drives the market for that on-the-field talent. When top sports broadcasters become free agents, it’s rarely publicized, and they don’t seem to move as much.

Keyshawn Johnson (center) joined ESPN in 2007 and is part of the “Sunday NFL Countdown” lineup.
Photo by: JOE FARAONI / ESPN
When Keyshawn Johnson started at ESPN in 2007, he signed a four-year deal, and he more recently signed a five-year extension, he said. “When my deal was up … there were a couple of networks that were interested in talking with us,” Johnson said of himself and his agent, Jerome Stanley. “But we wanted to be with ESPN. I feel like it is the best home for me.”

Network executives say on-set continuity is important because viewers tune in to hear certain voices and see certain faces.

“Jim Nantz has become the voice of CBS, the NFL, the NCAA Final Four, all of our golf events,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “If there is a major event, chances are, Jim Nantz [is announcing it.] He has carved out a unique niche. He is very closely identified with the biggest events.”

Goren, similarly, called Buck “the face of Fox.”

Eric Weinberger, executive producer at NFL Network, said he thinks top broadcasters stay with their networks for reasons beyond money. He said it would be quite a challenge to get a top-name broadcaster to leave his respective network.

“It would be most difficult, probably not from the money standpoint, but these are loyal men you are talking about,” Weinberger said. “They know they are attached to the brand, and they have helped the brand — just as the brand has helped them.”

At NFL Network, the lead voice is Rich Eisen. Said Weinberger, “The four men [Costas, Michaels, Buck and Nantz] are great; you can call them Super Bowls. But we think Rich Eisen is as competent or more competent.”

As for programming, considering pregame shows especially, the programs through the years have gotten longer and even more important to the networks, Goren said — not that they haven’t always been key components to Sunday TV viewing.

When the NFL debuted on Fox in 1994, the network was known as much for “The Simpsons” as anything else. Network pregame shows up until then had typically been a half-hour in length. Fox decided to start out with an hourlong show, hiring Bradshaw, Long and Johnson for its debut, along with James Brown — who had been, and now is again, at CBS — to host the show. The chemistry between those four, Goren said, played a major role in Fox’s success right from the start with the NFL. “We wanted to create an atmosphere [like] if a viewer was sitting at a bar,” Goren said. “It would be almost like that: guys talking ball at a bar.”

For the past 17 years, the show has stayed virtually the same, with only a few changes. Brown left in 2006 to go back to CBS and has been replaced by Curt Menefee. Strahan joined the team in 2008.

“The hiring of talent is as inexact a science as anything can be,” Goren said. Fox had looked at but turned down multiple opportunities to hire other broadcasters until Strahan became available after the Giants won the Super Bowl, and Goren said he can’t explain exactly why he hired Strahan — other than he was the right guy and the right fit with Fox’s longtime pregame hosts.

TOUGH PARTS TO THE JOB

Strahan’s path from the field to TV is atypical. Most recently retired players have to learn that once they leave the field, there’s a lot of hard work and paying of dues ahead of them in their desired new profession if they want to score a big network job. And no matter how long and hard they work, that prime job might never be in their future.

“There are rare exceptions of players who right out of the gate will be paid a healthier salary [than his playing salary],” said marketing and broadcast agent Reed Bergman. “Michael Strahan is an example. He really made the jump from being an All-Pro football player to an all-pro broadcaster. He has one of the plumb jobs in the business.”

“The travel is the toughest part. … Even when I was a coach I was home half of the time.”
— BRIAN BILLICK
Fox Sports

Photo by: FOX SPORTS
“It’s like anything else: There has to be something innate inside of you” for an athlete to succeed as a broadcaster, said “Sunday Night Football” producer Fred Gaudelli, speaking for himself and not for NBC Sports. “Some former players don’t like it. They don’t like to criticize other players. They don’t like the hours of travel.”

Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick, now a game analyst with Fox, said that if there’s one thing that would make him quit the sports broadcasting business, it is that time away from home.

“The travel is the toughest part,” said Billick, who’s been with Fox since 2008. “I am on the road every weekend. Even when I was a coach I was home half of the time [with eight home games.]”

Billick is also not crazy about criticizing other coaches. “When I was coaching, we used to call it a ‘drive-by,’” he said of the quick-hit commentary from a broadcaster. “Just a whiz-by or a drive-by.” Billick said that when he does criticize other coaches on the air, he calls them the next week and talks to them about it.

Similarly, ESPN’s Johnson said many former players don’t like criticizing current players on the air. “I think a lot of times, guys are afraid they are going to hurt someone’s feelings that they used to play with,” he said, adding that he has received calls from players unhappy with criticisms he has made on the air. “They get mad, but what am I supposed to do? I have a job to do.”

As for preparation, the amount of work broadcasters do before their games or pregame shows varies based on the job — play-by-play announcer, game analyst or studio analyst — as well as the broadcaster’s individual work ethic and style.

Johnson said he stays in touch with the NFL year-round but does not, like some broadcasters, call up coaches during the week to prepare for his duties at ESPN.

Strahan said he watches football during the week but said he watches it and keeps up with developing stories about as much as an average NFL fan. “You as a fan don’t watch football eight hours a day [during the week],” he said. “I did that when I was playing. I don’t do that now.”

MORE JOBS, MULTIPLE EMPLOYERS

While it’s rare for broadcasters who have prime jobs to leave their posts, and the work that’s required in those jobs has inherent challenges, the good news for aspiring broadcasters is that in 2011, there were more sports broadcast jobs than ever before. In 2012, there likely will be even more.

“The big story out there is that sports television is in a significant period of growth and probably is not going to stop growing for a while,” said agent Oppenheim, who has been representing sports television talent since 1981. “There are many more jobs in sports than there have ever been.”

Said IMG’s Montag, “What you see is the growth in the nontraditional areas in broadcasting,” noting as an example that IMG client Brown now hosts an interview show that airs only on CBSSports.com. “You never would have heard of something like that 10 years ago,” he said.

There are so many jobs, in fact, that many professional athletes who did not distinguish themselves as stars on the playing field are getting shots at a second career in broadcasting, agents said, when they wouldn’t have had a chance years ago. At the same time, they’re having to compete with established broadcasters and higher-profile players for those new jobs because more and more broadcasters are taking multiple jobs and working for more than one network.

Such is the case with Billick. The end of his Fox game broadcast on Sunday is far from the end of his work week.
After having spent three or four days in the city of the home team preparing for and covering the game, Billick catches a plane to Los Angeles, usually getting in around 11 p.m. Sunday night. Monday morning, he’s up at 6 a.m. to do three or four radio shows — usually with hosts Colin Cowherd, Dennis Miller and Dan Patrick. He moves on to the NFL Network studios at 8:30 a.m. for a pre-production meeting for his program “The Coaches Show” and then proceeds to the Fox studios around midday. He’s back at NFL Network in the evening to shoot “The Coaches Show” as well as “NFL Total Access.” All told, he’s usually done around 9 p.m. on Mondays, letting him catch the 10:45 p.m. red-eye back home to Baltimore, arriving about 6:45 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“My wife has been asking me this on a regular basis: ‘What happened to all this free time we were supposed to have?’” Billick said.

Having more than one employer obviously means more money, but the other reason broadcasters are taking multiple assignments is to build their own brand.

In addition to working for Fox and the NFL Network, Billick does about 20 radio shows a week. Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback, handles weekly game-analyst duties for CBS, but he also started doing radio color commentary for Westwood One’s Monday night game coverage about five years ago. He now does half of those Monday night games for Westwood One.

Fouts said broadcasters working more than one job and working for different employers is a trend that has continued to develop over the past several years. “I don’t know when it started, [but] I just think it’s happened, and it’s good your employers are letting you do these things,” he said. “I am not sure what started it — other than the guilt of the networks for not paying guys enough money,” he quipped. “They have to feel guilty at some point.”

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