Over the last few weeks, Kirk Herbstreit's tenor has changed around his desire to move from calling college football on ESPN to the NFL. While once he said he had no interest in it, he's now more open to the idea. Then today brought news that ESPN is intent on adding more NFL coverage to its arsenal and that Herbstreit's play-by-play partner, Chris Fowler, said he would also consider a move to the NFL. Coupled together, it doesn't take a Harvard English professor to read the writing on the wall.
Herbstreit and Fowler are positioning themselves for a possible future where they're the face of ESPN's NFL broadcasts.
That's a major change from where we were a year ago when Herbstreit and The Big Lead's Kyle Koster had the following exchange. I'm bolding the key areas in case you want to skim and leaving the questions in so you understand the context.
Koster: There's a unique energy to a college football Saturday and you've been a part of hundreds of these mornings. Do you still get that tingle in your stomach?
Herbstreit: It's one of the reasons I'll never leave and go to the NFL or go anywhere else. I love all sports, but college football is different. The emotion, the passion, the subjective world that we argue and live in. It keeps you on the edge of your seat every week and it doesn't get old, at least for me. There's constantly new storylines, constantly new players that are emerging, there's conferences that are trying to pull up to be the best. I enjoy all the discussion. The NFL, I'm a fan of but until you get to the postseason it's good, but it's not great. That's just me. It's a personal preference. This sport does not get old, it just gets better. Every week we go on, I get that same exact feeling I got back in 1996.the following: It's one of the reasons I'll never leave and go to the NFL or go anywhere else. I love all sports, but college football is different.
So on October 3, 2019, Herbstreit went out of his way to say he had no interest in calling the NFL and even took a little shot at the quality of the play. Fast forward to my Q&A with Herbstreit almost exactly a year later and the answer is quite different.
Giuffra: I wanted to ask a little bit about that Monday Night Football experience for you, covering the Steelers-Giants. What was that like for you, and did it give you an itch to get to that NFL level?
Herbstreit: Number one, I don’t know if I’ve spoken with you about this, but I have said how much I love college. How much college, just the pageantry the sport, the marching band. I’m just, I’m just built that way wired that way, probably because of the way I was raised. That’s always been my thing. And I think it’ll probably always will be my thing. So I’ve always just looked at the NFL – while most people in my shoes are always looking to grow and grow one day, maybe I’ll do the NFL, I’ve never had that. With that being said, I was blown away by how much I enjoyed that game, how much I enjoyed for me, it’s not the game itself… it’s the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday build up towards the game and sitting down with the coaches, the coordinators, the head coaches, the players and how incredibly candid they were and giving of their time that they were. To be honest, I was just a little bit, not intimidated, but I was just a little bit curious as to how they would handle Chris and Kirk coming in from college to do a Monday Night game, and they could not have been any more gracious. So that part kind of excited me that they were pumped that we were there to do their game, and then doing the game… even though we didn’t have one fan – it was one of those games we didn’t have one fan in the stands – and I had an absolute ball calling that game and it made me reflect a little bit, a little bit differently towards my future and what I might want to do down the road. Like I said, I hope to always do college football, but if NFL would be in my future, I’m a lot more open to that thought than I was maybe prior to that experience.
So after calling Steelers-Giants to start the year as part of ESPN's Week 1 double-header, Herbstreit is now more open to the idea. He also reiterated this point to Jimmy Traina of Sports Illustrated and even brought up the idea of calling both college and the NFL.
“It interests me in that I love football and that I always have. I have preferred college over the NFL throughout my career as I have much more experience doing it. But I have always been a fan of the NFL, and it is football at the highest level. There are a lot of things about it that intrigue me. But that doesn’t mean I am going to take over Monday Night Football. Because I didn’t. I am very happy doing what I am doing. I am living the dream. The NFL is a massively important property to my company – the most important. So the landscape ahead may change and there may be opportunities and I would never close myself to any opportunity, especially one that is really rewarding and fun.”
The end of that statement, when paired with the change in tenor from Herbstreit and Andrew Marchand's report that Disney/ESPN are trying to steal Sunday Night Football away from NBC, is a significant indicator to me that Herbstreit and Fowler are, at minimum, positioning themselves to be the future face of ESPN's NFL coverage. The worldwide leader already struck out trying to land Tony Romo and Al Michaels to be their top team this past offseason and haven't produced a standout booth since Jon Gruden left after the 2017 season.
ESPN tried to get creative with the hiring of Jason Witten and Booger McFarland as analysts, but both tryouts failed and ESPN settled for an in-house booth of Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick this year after their overtures to Romo and Michaels failed. Levy, Greise and Riddick have performed admirably this year, but they're not in the same league as Romo-Nantz (CBS), Aikman-Buck (FOX), or Michaels-Collinsworth (NBC).
Meanwhile, Herbstreit and Fowler shined in their call of the season-opening Monday night game between the Giants and Steelers. Deitsch reported that ESPN executives were "overjoyed" by their performance and the duo was generally lauded by the public for seamlessly transitioning the chemistry and knowledge they display on college football calls to the NFL. There's more money calling NFL games and a larger audience, too. If ESPN gets a Super Bowl, that would be another enticement.
Conversely, Herbstreit and Fowler maintain their love for college football and ESPN's stranglehold over broadcast rights will only grow stronger when they get all the SEC games starting in 2024.
It's an interesting and, at this point, prognostic dilemma. ESPN would need to land additional NFL broadcast rights, which isn't guaranteed, and then they would have to decide who they want leading their top booth at that point. It could be a former player who is still playing now or a broadcaster on another network. Or, of course, it could be Herbstreit and Fowler. If it's the last option, Herbstreit and Fowler would then have to decide if it was the right move to make for themselves and their family. Obviously a lot of moving parts there.
At the same time, the substance of Herbstreit's and Fowler's comments can't be overlooked. They see an opportunity emerging on the horizon and are positioning themselves to take advantage when/if it arrives. That's a smart business decision by them regardless of what happens and sets up an interesting predicament for everyone involved in the future.