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Volume 22 No. 43
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Will he stay or will he bolt? My money is on Tony Romo sticking with CBS.

Tony Romo’s next deal could reset salaries for top TV talent throughout sports.
Photo: getty images
Tony Romo’s next deal could reset salaries for top TV talent throughout sports.
Photo: getty images
Tony Romo’s next deal could reset salaries for top TV talent throughout sports.
Photo: getty images

Let the Tony Romo sweepstakes begin.

 

Romo called his final game of the season on Jan. 19 from Kansas City and now becomes the country’s most sought after broadcasting free agent. Represented by CAA Sports agent Tom Young, Romo’s free agency more closely resembles athlete negotiations rather than ones involving broadcasters, which historically have been much more private.

Think back to when John Madden left CBS for Fox 25 years ago. It was an entirely different media landscape back in 1994. But Madden frequently expressed concern about how the public perception of being television’s highest-paid analyst would damage his everyman persona.

Romo, who stands to see his salary quadruple to more than $10 million per year, does not appear to share those concerns. 

Romo’s next deal could restructure salaries for A-list talent throughout sports TV. What happens when the contracts expire for Cris Collinsworth with NBC and Troy Aikman with Fox? How will the face of ESPN’s popular college football telecasts, Kirk Herbstreit, react to news that ESPN is prepared to pay a football analyst an eight-figure sum?

Romo is hardly a one-off situation.

CBS and ESPN certainly don’t want to get involved in a bidding war — TV executives hate seeing salaries rise so high. Announcers, after all, have no effect on TV viewership and ad sales.

But announcers like Romo can help a network’s perception with both the public and the league. The sound of their voices has the ability to give a regular-season game a big-game feel.

With NFL negotiations coming up — and with networks committing billions of dollars in annual rights — an eight-figure pay day for Romo does not seem out of whack. It seems like a rounding error.

Romo holds all of the cards. CBS wants to keep him, and ESPN wants to poach him.

For months, my prediction has been that Romo will sign a new deal at CBS. That hasn’t changed. Here’s why:

Who is in the booth?

Romo has spent three years alongside one of the best play-by-play announcers in the business in Jim Nantz. Insiders describe Nantz as being instrumental in helping Romo develop and succeed as an analyst. By all accounts, the two are close friends — so much so that Romo cited Nantz as one of the reasons why he originally signed with CBS. ESPN has Joe Tessitore, a likable announcer, but one who has been calling NFL games for only two years now. Tessitore has had his share of critics over those two seasons and now has to deal with rumors that he may be replaced.

Who is in the truck?

Two weeks after hiring Romo in April 2017, CBS handpicked Jim Rikhoff to replace Lance Barrow as its top NFL producer to work with the novice broadcaster. Rikhoff essentially trained Romo and taught him how to be a broadcaster. The two apparently have become close friends. ESPN’s truck is more of an unknown. Longtime “Monday Night Football” producer Jay Rothman is not returning, and ESPN has yet to announce his replacement.

Who has more viewers? Better games?

 It’s probable that ESPN/ABC will wind up with a better package (or two) after the next round of rights negotiations. Most sources believe ESPN/ABC will become part of the Super Bowl rotation. But those promises still are several years away and won’t take effect until the 2023 season. Until then, it’s all CBS.

CBS has more viewers; last season, for example, CBS’s national windows averaged just fewer than 22 million viewers. ESPN averaged 12.6 million viewers for “Monday Night Football.” CBS has better games; the NFL historically has referred to ESPN’s package as its “cable” package, which means the league schedules fewer marquee games on Monday night, as opposed to the late window on Sunday afternoon, which is the game Romo typically does. CBS produces playoff games each weekend through the AFC Championship game. ESPN has one wild card game — the least attractive one. Romo will get to call the Super Bowl next year on CBS. ESPN has none, at least until the next rights deal.

Workload

Romo calls a game a week with CBS. Earlier this season, network executives even were OK with him potentially missing a game if he made the cut in a golf tournament. If Romo wanted to talk football every day on every show, ESPN has the platforms for that. But sources say that is not what Romo wants to do. He wants to call football games.

Loyalty

Romo’s whole career has been about loyalty. He played for the same football team during his 14-year career. He knows that Sean McManus and David Berson took a big risk by putting him in the top analyst spot in 2017. They provided Romo with the tools to succeed. I’m told that loyalty is important to Romo, and it appears that CBS has done enough to justify that loyalty.

Of course, it all comes down to money. Romo could walk away from CBS if ESPN blows him away with an offer he can’t refuse. My sources say CBS is prepared to be competitive. CBS has matching rights to any offer.

You don’t have to be as good at predictions as Romo to see where this is headed.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his twice-weekly newsletter.