Why would ESPN pay $4 million to Jason Witten, who’s never called an NFL game?
The career prospects of Jason Witten, technically still a Dallas Cowboys tight end, have consumed an unanticipated amount of bandwidth at this busy juncture of the sports calendar. Last week, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Witten was leaning toward retirement, and possibly headed for the vacant and coveted “Monday Night Football” color man spot. On Sunday, Mortensen wrote that Witten’s decision had been muddled by a second network trying to woo him with a compelling offer. A resolution was likely to come this week, according to ESPN, with owner Jerry Jones saying the two men had “great discussions.”
The future Hall of Fame tight end could become the face of the “Monday Night Football” brand while walking into one of the most visible jobs in sports broadcasting. And that, in turn, prompted a lot of talking about Jason Witten from people who otherwise spend their time not talking about Jason Witten.
The most curious part of the saga, though, might be the introduction of the second network vying for Witten’s services, despite ESPN offering, according to the Dallas Morning News, somewhere between $4 million and $4.5 million per year. How could Witten - an excellent player, seemingly bright guy and broadcasting novice who probably doesn’t move the publicity needle outside of Texas - cause a bidding war?
It brought to mind the immediate reaction after ESPN paid Jon Gruden $6.5 million a year to call “Monday Night Football” (and make “Gruden’s QB Camp” specials) before he left to coach the Raiders. Couldn’t the network find a cheaper alternative? Fans may be irritated or enthralled when they hear a certain broadcaster’s voice, but aren’t NFL fans going to watch “Monday Night Football” regardless of who is in the booth? Isn’t it a waste of money?
“That’s a good question,” said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who now runs the consulting firm Pilson Communications. “The industry wrestles with that. I’ve been in the business for about 50 years. There are a few on-air sports personalities that people want to listen to and want to watch. You can probably count them on one hand.”
Nobody would deny that a great analyst improves the experience of watching a game, and that an overly chatty or dull, cliché-addled color commentator makes you want to hurl a remote at the wall. But sports fans are tuning into the game for the a different reason.
“The game is like a great meal,” said Gerry Matalon, who spent 27 years as ESPN executive developing and coaching on-air talent who now runs the media training company Matalon Media. “The announcers are the server of the meal. They enhance the experience. The value of any particular announcer, to media executives and decision-makers, is always subjective. In the end, I’ve never watched a game because of the announcers. However, I’ve enjoyed a game more because of the announcers.”
Still, Pilson said networks have good reason to shell out money for broadcasters they believe can excel. It is easy for sports fans to say they’re only tuning for a game, but it’s harder to remember what makes them keep watching or click elsewhere. While Pilson agreed that announcers rarely bring an audience, he also said they can either lose it or keep it. Monday night, Pilson said, he grew annoyed with a baseball broadcasting duo, and so he flipped to a hockey game.
“There are a substantial number of good, or very good, people in the business who provide extra comfort, extra enjoyment,” Pilson said. “It’s hard to measure whether they bring an audience. But they certainly keep an audience. If talent doesn’t seem to know what’s going on in the game, or if the talent talks too much or not enough, people drift away.”
What’s hard to know, and what makes the high salaries puzzling, is how to quantify that impact. Former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, a close friend of Witten’s who left his playing career for the top CBS analyst spot last year, was roundly hailed for his deep knowledge, sharp analysis, predictive powers and enthusiasm.
“He helps CBS get ratings,” Pilson said. “Can we identify if that’s 2 percent, or 3 percent? 5? 10? No. No one can.”
ESPN, surely, would take any ratings help it can get. Ratings for “Monday Night Football” dropped last season, but trying to deduce the precise reason, or whether the broadcast itself played a role, is a snake pit. Poor matchups surely hurt; a small but statistically significant percentage of fans blamed players kneeling for the national anthem and/or the league’s response; television networks have seen ratings plummet across the board. ESPN pays $2 billion for NFL rights, so perhaps a few million dollars here or there is quibbling for the network. (ESPN reportedly tried to lure Peyton Manning with a $10 million per year offer.)
Witten makes for an unusual case, for a few reasons. He was a tremendous player and came off as well-spoken in interviews, but he is not a megastar, or famous beyond football. He would become one of the highest-paid employees at ESPN, which has been laying off well-liked staffers, both on and off camera, ostensibly for financial reasons. “Monday Night Football” is already in flux, with Sean McDonough out as play-by-play man and Joe Tessitore in.
If ESPN lands Witten for its “Monday Night Football” vacancy, it would make him, remarkably, the fourth prominent NFL color man who fits into a specific box. Four of the top six or seven in-booth analysts would share the same profile: a white ex-player who spent his entire career with the Dallas Cowboys. (Witten would join Daryl Johnston, Troy Aikman and Romo in that category.)
There is another pattern that warrants both mention and further examination: CBS, Fox, ESPN and NBC employed 17 regular NFL broadcast teams in 2017. Only three of the analysts - CBS’s James Lofton and Fox’s Ronde Barber and Charles Davis - were black, despite it being a job that draws primarily from a pool of ex-players in a league that is roughly 70 percent black.
In a sense, Witten would be a substantial risk: He’s never done the job before, and he would be stepping into a highly prominent job. In another light, his general blandness and similarity to so many other NFL color analysts make him a safe pick.
Another factor: There is not unanimity about who will make a good broadcaster, even among the people doing the hiring. Fill a room with 10 television executives, Pilson said, and all 10 would probably agree on which sporting events are good buys. But there could be wild disagreement about who would make for - and even who is - a quality broadcaster.
“Talent is a much more subjective judgment,” Pilson said.
So it may be impossible to say whether Witten would be any good in the booth, even if he lands the job, making it even harder to determine whether he’s worth a salary exceeding $4 million. In any event, there stands a good chance we will be listening to Witten in the fall. At least then, we can stop talking about him.