The future of ESPN's Monday Night Football booth hinges on the decision of Peyton Manning. Industry sources believe it could take an offer north of $20 million per year to get talks between Manning and ESPN moving in a serious direction, which raises two complicated questions: 1. How high is ESPN willing to go? 2. How much is he worth?
ESPN's other options to reshape and bolster its booth to a level on par with its competing networks are scarce. Manning, who is as much of a celebrity as he is a former football player, could be the only name to get ESPN's NFL broadcast to that place. Like any business decision, though, resources are ultimate value must be considered.
Manning's contract offer, accepted or rejected, will immediately get compared to Tony Romo's, which is north of $17 million annually. The truth is, it would be much more complicated than just stacking them next to each other à la a graphic on Sunday Night Football.
Manning's career, legacy, stature, fame, and voice all exceed Romo's. But his broadcasting resume is essentially nonexistent. CBS is likely resting okay at night after inking Romo to a monstrous, unprecedented contract that could grow to a decade in length. Romo is the consensus top color commentator in sports, was expected to receive a comparable offer from a competitor (ESPN), and is a top-three talent in sports media. Manning would come with none of that.
We think Manning will be a great color commentator. ESPN, which has made him multiple offers over the past few years, thinks so, too. Those are projections — nothing more. His personality fits, we know that. Is he willing to criticize players? Could he be reluctant to fairly judge those vying to surpass his NFL accolades? Would he be comfortable breaking down his rival and friend Tom Brady as an analyst? Can Manning work alongside and mesh with his partner? These traits are mandatory for Manning to come close to justifying the rumored expectations and salary ranges.
Romo, too, projected to be a high-level analyst after he hung up the cleats (and he far exceeded those expectations). He started at CBS at $4 million annually. No one would be foolish enough to even bring that number up to Manning, though stomaching the thought of how much higher first-year, potential star color commentators are going for three years later isn't easy.
It remains a frustrating guessing game how athletes will transition to broadcasting, hence why so many of the pregame shows are loaded with recognizable former players who struggle to say anything of substance over the course of a season. There are more surprises than confirmations.
Salaries, in any industry, are determined by timing, leverage, alternative options, and demand. Even while realizing that all of those factors are disproportionately in Manning's favor, topping or even matching Romo's deal isn't the slam-dunk, "Monday Night Football is back, y'all," route some believe it to be. If everything goes right for Manning in the booth, which should never be expected for anyone, he still wouldn't be the broadcaster Romo is (in fairness that's more to do with Romo than Manning). Manning arguably would still trail Troy Aikman, who has received widespread acclaim for his role with FOX next to Joe Buck. Aikman is currently in the $7.5 million range.
If ESPN can eventually get Manning to agree to a deal anywhere north of $15 million, three years should be the maximum offer. There would be uncertainty coming from all angles: Manning as a broadcaster, his play-by-play partner, how interested he is in the job, the reaction, and, most importantly, the future of Disney's package with the NFL.
There are a lot of unanswered questions that wouldn't be answered until the contract is signed, Manning has worked at least a month of games, and the first paycheck is (maybe) spent. Per usual, the league's other broadcast partners are sitting with A-level booths and packages and are not envious of ESPN's NFL broadcast situation.