ESPN May Have Pulled Off the Biggest Coup in Sports Television
In a network where Stephen A. Smith can go on a rage rant every morning and SportsCenter is on for most dayparts will have two new faces holding the fort on Monday Nights this coming fall.
ESPN’s Monday Night Football has had plenty of high-profile voices since taking over the reins from Disney’s other network ABC in 2006, from Mike Tirico to Jon Gruden, even to current ESPN guys like Joe Tessitore and Steve Levy, they have yet to find top-flight talent to take Monday Night Football to bigger heights. Now it appears that ESPN has locked up not one, but both of Fox’s top broadcast personalities for the legendary Monday Night franchise. According to New York Post sports media reporter Andrew Marchand, Joe Buck is expected to ditch Fox for ESPN, where he will join his longtime broadcast partner, Troy Aikman. If it’s official, Buck will be the first top-flight play-by-play man since Al Michaels to helm the Monday Night broadcast, and Aikman the first high-profile Dallas Cowboy to be the color man since Don Meredith.
If official, it would be the biggest coup in sports television.
In the case of Aikman, Aikman was already a free agent once ESPN poached him. In an interview with 1310 The Ticket in Dallas (Where Aikman spent his entire football career with the local Cowboys), he admitted Fox wasn’t aggressive in keeping him when he started negotiating with ESPN.
“When negotiations couldn’t reach what I felt was fair value, I was able to negotiate an opt-out after six months which allowed me to be a free agent,” Aikman said, via The New York Post. “Then Fox never jumped into the game. They never made an offer. I didn’t have any conversations with Fox, until I got a call to congratulate me on my new deal. So that was a decision they made and it’s fine.”
Aikman wanted to stay with Fox to be the lead color commentator, but he thinks the network made a decision on him more than he made a decision on them.
“Initially my plan was to stay at Fox, but as I said, that was a decision they made and I went a different route,” he said.
For Buck, Fox reportedly granted him permission to talk with ESPN on Friday, and the two sides are expected to reach a deal soon. Buck previously had one year with a salary of $11 million left on his contract with Fox and is now expected to sign a deal in the range of five years and $60 million-$75 million with ESPN. Aikman reportedly landed a five-year, $92.5 million contract. Those are big numbers. That same day, Michelle Beisner-Buck, a reporter for ESPN and wife of Joe, welcomed him to the network on Instagram.
While we wait for the official confirmation, it seems that ESPN will get its man just in time when ABC will broadcast the Super Bowl in a few years from now.
The additions of Buck and Aikman finally gives ESPN what it has wanted for years: name recognition in the Monday Night Football booth since the days of Howard Cossell and Frank Gifford, both are no longer with us. Back then, the most stable booth on Monday Night Football was the pairing of Tirico and Gruden for more than two years. Since Tirico left for NBC, ESPN has cycled through Sean McDonough, Joe Tessitore and Steve Levy at the play-by-play position, with varying results. I like Levy because he was a Long Island guy and worked hard to make it in broadcasting. Tessitore? I prefer he’s stick to boxing.
Meanwhile, the color position has been even more chaotic since Gruden left for an ultimately doomed return to coaching. ESPN first brought on Jason Witten, who basically sucked and drew poor reviews and abruptly ended his retirement to re-sign with the Cowboys, then tried Booger McFarland as its sole color commentator, to even poorer reviews. Booger is now doing studio work and the ESPN+ edition of NFL Primetime. At seemingly every juncture, ESPN even went after Peyton Manning, but was rebuffed until the Hall of Fame quarterback got his own broadcast with his brother, Eli. The resulting Manning-Cast was unquestionably a win for ESPN, but left ESPN with Brian Griese and Louis Riddick, a pair low on name recognition but with decent reviews.
Now, it appears the network will have Buck and Aikman for years to come. Buck also figures to feature heavily in ESPN’s baseball coverage, and Marchand reports he will be involved in producing ESPN+ products as well. As for Aikman, he is set to replace Brian Griese, who left to become the new 49ers quarterbacks coach; and Louis Riddick, who is currently looking for work as an NFL GM.
Buck’s move would end an era at Fox, where he was the network’s top broadcaster in both football and baseball. He joined Fox in 1994, became its lead baseball voice in 1996 and its lead football voice in 2002. Aikman’s move would also be the end at Fox, where he was the lead color commentator since 2002 after the late John Madden went to Monday Nights in 2002. With both Buck and Aikman gone, Fox will have to find suitable replacements for its biggest football games, as well as a new play-by-play man for the World Series to work alongside John Smoltz. Fox hasn’t settled on a new lead analyst yet, but the network considered Sean Payton for the role, but that’s to be determined. As for the rest of the Fox crew, Erin Andrews’s contract has reportedly expired, but hopefully they’ll renew it to spite ESPN for taking their top talent.
To me this is like Bob Iger gobbling up what was left of Rupert Murdoch’s powerful Fox empire. While Murdoch is able to maintain the Fox name and bring his brand of entertainment on the airwaves, but Iger took the studio (Now known as 20th Century Studios) as well as a share of Hulu. Now with both top voices of Fox Sports gone, maybe Murdoch will have to go back to the drawing board if he wants Fox to be number one again.
After all, he did poach Skip Bayless from ESPN. That seems like a win.
SOURCES: Troy Aikman claims Fox never made an offer before departure for ESPN — Sports Illustrated, Joe Buck to ESPN: Expected to leave Fox to join Troy Aikman — Sports Illustrated, NFL: Joe Buck expected to follow Troy Aikman to ESPN (yahoo.com)