ESPN is preparing to make upcoming media free agent Tony Romo an offer that would pay him $10-$14 million annually, reports Mike McCarthy of Front Office Sports. ESPN's desire for Romo, who is currently employed by CBS, hasn't been a secret as his value in the open market is as high as a sports media free agent's could be. More often than not, networks can't match what ESPN can provide, but in Romo's case, it's an option lacking certainty and filled with unpredictable, possibly lackluster outcomes.
If Romo were to leave CBS for ESPN, seemingly he would be convinced ESPN/ABC is on the verge of drastically upgrading its NFL package. As currently constructed, going from CBS's to ESPN's booth is going from a Super Bowl contender to a team trying to get out of mediocrity.
CBS broadcasts the Super Bowl every third year, the AFC side of the playoffs, and the majority of the star-studded conferences' regular-season games. Disney's current agreement with the NFL only includes "Monday Night Football", which no longer is the must-watch it once was, and one NFL playoff game, which is rightfully mocked because it's the first game of the Wild Card round on Saturday around 4:30 p.m ET featuring the Texans and/or a team that doesn't draw. Unless CBS foolishly isn't willing to match Romo's offer, which they have the right to do in his deal, ESPN is a hard sell game-wise.
To no surprise, the result of ESPN's NFL deal has been Monday Night Football ratings not being comparable to the other networks', which air on broadcast television. This past regular season, the ratings were up at all four NFL broadcasters, but ESPN trailed all with the following averages: NBC - 20.5 million, FOX - 19.2 million, CBS - 17.2 million, and ESPN - 12.6 million.
Of course, the caveat is that this is all as of now. The NFL's broadcasting rights with FOX, CBS, and NBC expire after the 2022 season. Its deal with ESPN expires after 2021. Thus some sort of musical chairs could occur. However, and here is where the risk for Romo again comes in, there is little reason to expect ESPN/ABC to eclipse the package CBS has.
In March, after talking with former FOX Sports executive and current industry consultant Patrick Crakes, I concluded ESPN/ABC's clearest route to getting into the Super Bowl rotation is not poaching away a rival's current package, but by adding London/international and holiday games. While this scenario would undoubtedly be an upgrade for Disney, it still wouldn't be on equal footing with the rights of CBS, FOX, and NBC.
There is a belief around the industry that winning the Romo sweepstakes would increase ESPN's chances of improving its package. But is that a gamble Romo is willing to take? Is it worth him bailing on Chiefs, Ravens, Patriots, and Steelers games for the real possibility of being stuck on afterthought games with a company that prioritizes the NBA over the NFL?
The same sources would also quickly point to the "Jim Nantz factor." What Romo has with Nantz is irreplaceable, and this is something Romo is aware of. Romo has given the play-by-play legend a second life. Together, they've become the best broadcast booth in sports. And, quite frankly, each year the gap widens. This is as hard of an obstacle for ESPN to hurdle as its package is. Romo's chemistry with Nantz wouldn't be duplicated and it's unknown who his partner would be if he made the move. ESPN could elect to continue with Joe Tessitore, look at in-house options Steve Levy and Adam Amin, Dave Pasch, and Jason Benetti, or bring in another outside candidate.
The comparable names to Nantz are not available, but instead on the A-teams for FOX and NBC. They could be suitors for Romo too, but at this point, that would be surprising. Though, NBA experts believed Kevin Durant would be choosing between the Warriors and Knicks at the 20-yard line and he went with the Nets in the end. So, let's not take them off the table quite yet.
But unlike those two networks, losing or losing out on Romo would be damaging for CBS and ESPN, respectively. Going from Romo to another color commentator is noticeably downgrading for the viewers on Sunday, thus imagine it for a network in a year. CBS cannot replace Romo and would be forced to settle for finding a solid option that hopefully doesn't bring negative attention. Rich Gannon and Dan Fouts would be safe, in-house replacements. As for ESPN, it would be even more troubling.
ESPN does not have a go-to option for the Monday Night Football booth. It would be a tough convince to bring Booger McFarland back after a below-average year and an alarmingly poor playoff game. If ESPN has confidence in any of its other analysts for the booth, they likely would have put them in it before the season. Though, perhaps a year later, they will feel more confident that one of them can avoid scrutiny in the role.
For all of these reasons, Tony Romo should be the highest-paid sportscaster. His worth exceeds all of those who have contracts in the upper echelon of the business. The only question is where he ends up and how much he's willing to risk.