“SPORTS WITH AN ATTITUDE!” came the blast from the billboards. The slogan was etched in tattoo graffiti, part of a campaign to hype my arrival in Chicago, and I guess the ad agency wanted me to terrorize fans in the No. 3 market with perpetual vitriol. Every time I drove past my smiling, 31-year-old mug near Wrigley Field, Soldier Field and sites throughout the metropolis, I laughed … and cringed … and all but peed my pants.
What the hell was the Sun-Times doing to me? Setting me up to fail before I’d started? Ensuring that my body parts would be found in the lake? Was I hired just to fit some absurd campaign? And who decided I had an attitude, anyway? As it was, the cantankerous columnist Mike Royko was taking shots at me, and Chet Coppock was introducing me on his talk show by asking when I’d win a Pulitzer Prize. Before long, Mike Ditka was calling me “Dummy-otti,” Michael Jordan was eyeing me like Craig Ehlo, and an alderman named Brian Doherty was grabbing the back of the neck at my post-work hangout, O’Callaghan’s on Hubbard Street, and not letting go for about 20 seconds.
Wasn’t this absolute madness?
Actually, looking back, this was the newspaper business at its best — never more vibrant, impactful or fun. Chicago was the heartbeat of print’s dominance in America, and I was the new hired gun, slung like a Billy Goat cheeseburger onto a two-paper downtown griddle that instantly heated up. The hard-working tabloid, headquartered in a tugboat-shaped building on the river, was dropping a bomb on the Tribune, at the time a stuffy, nose-in-the-air broadsheet in a neo-Gothic tower where sports columnists liked playing with words. I preferred playing with minds, a game made easier by the Tribune’s clumsy ownership of the Cubs. And the Tribsters didn’t like being uncomfortable, from the top of the Tower to the sports department, where NBA reporter Sam Smith wrote a best-seller called “The Jordan Rules” and charged his bosses a price for excerpts he’d gathered on their dime — which got Smith in trouble when I was fed excerpts by his book publicist and rushed news items into the paper, at no charge to my employer, before the Trib could publish its purchased material.
Sports With An Attitude, baby.
If you’d said then that the Chicago newspaper business would be gutted in 2021 — barely breathing, lacking impact and doomed to continued irrelevance and eventual extinction — I’d have let the alderman keep choking me. But the situation is as real and gnarly as ink on fingers. Just as that city was the head of the industry snake in the 20th century, the demise of the Tribune and Sun-Times symbolizes the death of print — and local news — only three decades later.
Now owned by the evil hedge-fund vultures at Alden Global Capital, which acquired Tribune Publishing despite pleas from employees for deep-pocketed civic saviors to step in, the Tribune newsroom is braced for mass layoffs and a severing of whatever editorial quality remains. This is what Alden does, killing journalism to lift profits, and the Tribune, New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel are among nine new papers who’ve joined dozens of other dailies on death row. Many familiar bylines will be sacrificed at the Trib, replaced by young and inexpensive content providers, or robots if available. And much as I’d like to think my old paper will seize an opportunity, the Sun-Times has been hooked to intensive-care machines for much too long, without an editor-in-chief since September and unable to send even one staffer to Indianapolis — 3 1/2 hours away by car, with a $4.50 fast-food stop on the way — for an Illinois-Loyola showdown in the NCAA basketball tournament.
We could ask Sister Jean Schmidt, Loyola’s 101-year-old sideline inspiration, to pray for Chicago’s papers. But rosary beads are best used for causes that still have fighting chances.
“Alden ownership,” wrote Tribune reporter and union leader Gregory Pratt, “would be a disaster for Chicago, democracy and society at large.”
Tweeted veteran Tribune media writer Phil Rosenthal, boldly risking his job by adding Alden to the company’s missteps: “Tribune’s 1st self-inflicted wound was merger with L.A. Times parent in 2000. Deal added Chandler family reps to board. They agitated for a sale to unwind their trusts and get their money. Then came Sam Zell, bankruptcy, TV/real estate split from print, Michael Ferro & now Alden.”
And this from Tribune humor columnist Rex Huppke, not in the joking mood: “This is terrible news for the Chicago Tribune and all our sister newspapers. It’s also terrible news for the communities these papers cover and, I’d argue, for the country. … I can’t be bothered with people who view newspapers as businesses to be squeezed for profit, or as disposable investments. None of us got into this to make money.”
It’s nothing short of an American tragedy, really. In a city of considerable wealth and corporate influence, not one heavy-hitter thought the Tribune was salvageable. Jeff Bezos energized the Washington Post. Patrick Soon-Shiong bailed out the Los Angeles Times. John Henry, the Red Sox owner, preserved the Boston Globe. Glen Taylor, the Minnesota Timberwolves owner, rescued the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis. But no one wanted the Chicago Tribune — not the Pritzkers, not the Wirtzes, not Ken Griffin and his $22 billion net worth, not Boeing or Walgreens, not Oprah Winfrey and her Chicago pedigree and not even White Sox/Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who already meddles in editorial operations without having to spend a penny. Soon-Shiong, a prominent Tribune shareholder, could have voted no and slowed Alden but chose to abstain. In its heyday, the Tribune was as prestigious as any U.S. newspaper. But while the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were prescient in recognizing the future of news — a digital transformation, followed by subscriptions — the Chicago dailies were asleep at the switch in the 2000s, thrust into turmoil by crooked, profit-skimming owners at both shops.
This is where I enter again, more than a decade into my 17-year run there. Frustrated by a primitive website, I repeatedly asked Sun-Times executives when they might embrace the technological advances of a new millennium to ensure long-term viability. “We’re a print operation,” came the reply, every time. They either couldn’t see the future — free-falling circulation, vanishing print advertising — or didn’t want to invest in it. More likely, the latter.
Knowing that I drove traffic in a voracious sports town and continued to view the Tribune the way Aaron Rodgers treats the Bears, the Sun-Times offered me yet another three-year extension in 2008. But though the financial numbers far exceeded my dreams in a labor of love, I was reluctant to sign. The bosses had jumped into bed with team owners I was trying to cover — I needed three showers a day, removing all the dirt — and the sports staff was a dissension-torn mess. I was sick of breaking up fights between writers, sick of in-house lies told about me to junk websites, sick of resentment about my daily role on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” — sick of the sickness. I wanted the editors to take charge of their debacle, starting with a stronger commitment to digital.
I agreed to sign the extension with a caveat: We would have a competitive website presence at the Beijing Olympics, where our staff of two would try our damndest against the Tribune’s legions. Next thing I knew, as if being pranked, our pieces from China weren’t being posted for hours. Then things got dirty: Because of so-called deadlines that couldn’t be stretched even a few minutes, I was asked by editors to write two fictional pieces — one with Michael Phelps winning, another with him losing — that were filed before his race for plug-in purposes. All the while, Dave Morgan and Yahoo! Sports had set up shop near us in the media center, showcasing the future of digital journalism — no fake stories, just a professional coverage plan executed with precision by several writers and editors over a couple of hours.
Eventually, I found myself on the Great Wall of China, having an epiphany. A year after dealing with heart pain on assignment, I was not about to let this god-awful operation kill me. We finished the three-week job. On the plane ride home, I crafted a polite, peaceful resignation letter to the publisher, who, of course, didn’t inform an editor-in-chief who was caught by surprise when the Tribune found out. Reporter Jim Kirk, who wound up running the newsrooms of the Sun-Times and L.A. Times, was the first to tell Michael Cooke that I was opting out and handing back about a million bucks. Cooke asked Kirk if it was a joke.
In truth, it was the day the Sun-Times began to fade.
This wasn’t considered good form, telling the competition that I refused to “go down with the ship.” The editors urged the great Roger Ebert — I’d met him only once — to crucify me the next day and call me “a rat.” But screw the Sun-Times. I’d devoted my life to the place, writing more pieces during those 17 years than any sports columnist on Earth, and the people on high had no interest in anything but extracting profits and cashing out. Sure enough, the paper was in deep trouble within a year. And since then, a frighteningly thin, hard-to-find product is published with a few dozen staffers from rented offices near a Goodwill donation store, kept from its funeral by periodic contributions via Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz and other locals. The Sun-Times finally got around to upgrading its site, then inexplicably attached it to a paywall. If few were reading the online content when it was free, who’s going to pay for it?
Today, the two sports sections are run by amateurs who kowtow to owners such as Reinsdorf and, of course, Wirtz. Observes Chicago media critic Jim O’Donnell, among those who’ve remained independent in a market of sellouts in his seat at the suburban Daily Herald: “The entrenched sports power people are controlling the market and the message to a degree they could only have dreamed of as recently as 15 years ago.”
Shortly after I entered the digital ranks as a national sports columnist, my journey slipped into the surreal. One of my writing heroes, Frank Deford, was interviewing me on a Wrigleyville rooftop for an HBO “Real Sports” segment. Topic: The demise of newspapers. When I pointed to a nearby Starbucks and said several people inside were reading news on laptop computers, Deford was incredulous, holding up a copy of the Sun-Times in protest as I dismissed the print paper as obsolete.
Frank passed away four years ago. “One of my favorite segments,” Patrick Byrne, HBO’s media relations director, told me in a note. “You were spot on.”
On a recent podcast, a host asked me if it was “ironic” what has happened to the print industry since my declaration. I corrected him on his word usage. “I was RIGHT,” I said, remembering how I was ripped by media people after the HBO show, as if I’d divulged the industry secret no one wanted to face.
I take no glee from my foresight. But I will realize, to my own dying day, that the Deford interview happened only a pop fly from where a “SPORTS WITH AN ATTITUDE” billboard once was perched.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Does Mike & The Mad Dog Reunion Really Have Broad Appeal?
“My confusion is not about the content. It is about the strategy.”
I know this is an unpopular opinion, especially on a site built on the back of sports radio, but I also know that I am not alone when I say this. I do not get why ESPN is reuniting Mike & the Mad Dog on First Take on Wednesday.
That is not a comment about Mike Francesa or Chris Russo as people. I am not going to sit here and tell you their show was not groundbreaking or pretend that its success did not make it easier for the sports format to spread across the country. They deserve all of the credit and accolades they get from our industry.
My confusion is not about the content. It is about the strategy. Who outside of New York and/or outside of the broadcast industry feels like this is must-see TV? This feels like some real whiffing of our own farts.
When ESPN writes a press release about the success of First Take, they tend to highlight two demographics. It’s either with men 18-49 or with men 18-34. The age range is important because Mike & The Mad Dog hasn’t been a thing for almost 15 years. Francesa and Russo have had their own success in that time. It is not like they disappeared, but 2008 was a long time ago. Even lifelong New Yorkers in the desired demos may not have a strong connection to Francesa and Russo as a brand.
And then there are those of us outside of New York. We may understand that Mike & The Mad Dog was a thing, but what does it really mean to us? Outside of industry professionals, I would venture a guess that if you say “Mike and the Mad Dog” to someone from the Central, Mountain or Pacific time zones, the very best-case scenario is that they would tell you that it sounds familiar, but they have no idea why.
Mike and the Mad Dog is a very specific dynamic, and credit to Stephen A. Smith and his producers, it is a dynamic that is perfect for First Take, but thanks to First Take, it isn’t a dynamic that I can only get from those two guys anymore. Their loud, unrelenting debates were revolutionary in 1989 when the show launched. Since then, the style has spawned so many imitators that I would worry the significance of the reunion will be lost on the average Joe tuning in from outside the Tri-State Area.
Smith is important enough to ESPN that if this is what he wants to do on First Take, then the bosses needed to make it happen. I respect that. But selling this as an event? It seems more exclusionary than anything. To us everywhere-elsers, Wednesday is just going to be an extraordinarily loud episode of First Take.
I have been working for Barrett Sports Media long enough to know the influence that people that are successful on New York radio have across the sports media industry. Why else would FS1 rearrange its schedule to make room for Craig Carton? If First Take were a show dedicated to debating ratings points and the value of digital audiences versus broadcast audiences, then a Mike & the Mad Dog reunion would be a home run.
But First Take is where sports fans turn to hear discussion of the Cowboys’ most recent playoff failure and the possibility that Nikola Jokic wins a third straight MVP award. Those are topics that cast a wide net – think like the net that commercial fishing vessels drop into the ocean. Using a walk down memory lane with Francesa and Russo as a ratings driver is like trying to catch fish with a pool skimmer.
Well okay, maybe not a pool skimmer. New York is really big, so let’s so it is like trying to catch fish with a laundry basket.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Jamie Erdahl Reflects On First Season of Good Morning Football
“I learned a lot [and] I got the nuances of the show down. Next year, I hope to elevate even more [and] just push the box a little bit more in.”
Jamie Erdahl, who was named in July 2022 as a new host of Good Morning Football on NFL Network following Kay Adams’ departure from the show, has looked to redefine the role of studio host and shatter the boundaries of being simply a moderator passing the baton to analysts throughout her career in sports media.
“I don’t personally feel that it’s my job to include them,” Erdahl said of her colleagues. “I like to think that this show is the four of us including each other in the conversation, and I happen to be the one that gets us on the air [and] gets us off the air, but everywhere in-between that it’s very much an equal lift if you will.”
Since its inception in August 2016, Good Morning Football has provided football fans unparalleled coverage of their favorite sport through recurring segments, interviews with active players and alumni, live demonstrations and insightful analysis. Aside from Erdahl, the show cast consists of Kyle Brandt, who was the former executive producer of The Jim Rome Show, along with NFL analyst Peter Schrager, and former NFL cornerback and Super Bowl champion Jason McCourty. Additionally, the program is co-hosted by Will Selva who also serves as an anchor for NFL Network.
Erdahl never thought hosting a national morning football show produced by a league-owned media outlet was realistic nor possible in the first place, wherefore she focused her early career endeavors towards covering local teams. In fact, her first exposure to sports media was as a 16-year-old shadowing broadcasters and answering the phones at KFAN Sports Radio in Minneapolis, screening callers who wanted to discuss the Minnesota Vikings among other topics.
After transferring from St. Olaf College to American University, Erdahl was placed into a production internship with ESPN through the Association for Women in Sports Media in a role she refers to as one of her “most formative professional experiences off-camera.” Her principal responsibility was cutting highlights for Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter, along with writing scripts for the anchors to recite over the highlights during the broadcast.
“To this day, I don’t think I would be as great or as strong at reading highlights if I had never had that opportunity at ESPN,” Erdahl said. “….I don’t think you can be really good on the air if you don’t have a full understanding of what it takes to get there from a production standpoint.”
Out of college, Erdahl returned to Minneapolis, where she worked as a freelance reporter at Fox Sports North, a regional sports network. In that role, she was a sideline reporter for various high school basketball games and Minnesota Lynx WNBA contests. One year later, she made the move to Boston to join NESN as an on-air anchor and reporter, contributing both to studio coverage and in-person event coverage ranging from the Boston Marathon to Boston College hockey.
Through several years of persistence and determination, Erdahl was afforded more opportunities and chances to continue elevating her skills. During her first year at NESN, she was working on NESN Sports Today as an anchor and reporter while also filling in for Jenny Dell as a field reporter for Boston Red Sox games. By September 2013, she was named the new rinkside reporter for Boston Bruins live game broadcasts where she succeeded Naoko Funayama, an established broadcaster who held the role for nearly six years.
“[Boston], more than any [market] I’ve ever been around, expects the world of you,” Erdahl said. “They expect the world of their athletes; of their coaches; of their organizations; and then of the media that covers the team. They’ll sus you out right away if they have a sense that you don’t know what you’re talking about or if you don’t know their team like the back of your hand like they do.”
Over her season as the rinkside reporter for Boston Bruins games on NESN, Erdahl performed her job well but internally struggled to report solely on the team. In being immersed in the dynamic atmosphere of a professional team, it is entirely plausible that while the storylines may change, much of the quotidian routine is mundane in nature.
Akin to a beat reporter, Erdahl’s job was to focus her work on the Bruins and NHL at large while remaining cognizant of Boston sports. Through it all, she inherently desired something more – a role in which she could cover several teams within a sport rather than just one.
“I am amazed at the people who can do 162-plus baseball games a year,” Erdahl said. “I just applaud them so much. I think your wealth of knowledge is admirable, but I found it so challenging to, let’s say, do 82-plus [games] of hockey because I felt like I wanted more sport variety.”
In 2014, Erdahl signed with CBS Sports as a sideline reporter for the NFL on CBS, traveling every week around the country to uncover stories and perspectives enhancing the game broadcast. She primarily worked with the No. 3 broadcast team of Greg Gumbel and Trent Green, along with director Suzanne Smith, who has served as one of Erdahl’s mentors. The move from reporting in one city to adopting a peripatetic lifestyle helped her with professional development and allowed her to cultivate relationships around the country.
“When you are at the regional [sports network], you’re just answering to that one team,” Erdahl said. “I loved reporting but what I loved about when I got to CBS was [that] you are answering to the broadcast; you are answering to players from both sides. You had to work to make sure that your coverage was fully equal.”
After several seasons covering the NFL, Erdahl was named the lead reporter for college football on CBS Sports, including within its SEC broadcast package. Despite the game being similar in many ways, college football presented challenges to Erdahl, largely due to the size of the rosters and the fact that many SEC on CBS Game of the Week broadcasts regularly included the Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs and Louisiana State University Tigers.
Next season will be the final year CBS will broadcast SEC games before the conference’s media rights agreement with The Walt Disney Company (ABC/ESPN) takes effect: a 10-year deal worth a reported $300 million annually. CBS will broadcast the Big Ten Conference instead, inking a 7-year deal for the second-best rights package worth a reported $350 million annually.
“Here I was back again [asking], ‘Okay, how do I make things new and fresh?,’” Erdahl said. “You can’t talk to Tua Tagovailoa every time on the phone. You’ve got to branch out; you’ve got to tell other guys’ stories.”
In addition to reporting on college football and NFL games, Erdahl was one of the first anchors on CBS Sports HQ, a free 24/7 sports news network available to stream on multiple platforms. She also reconnected with her athletic roots when she provided sideline reporting for CBS Sports’ coverage of March Madness. Her alacrity for the game and proficiency in its vernacular gave her an advantage as a media member reporting on one of the year’s premier events.
“My translation speed, let’s say, of what I hear in a basketball huddle is so much faster to laymen’s terms in basketball than it is for football,” Erdahl said. “That’s just a matter of I played basketball; it is a part of my lifeblood; it is part of my body and soul and upbringing.”
Erdahl eventually moved back into sideline reporting for the NFL on CBS; however it differed the second time around because she had two young children at home and had to leave them from Thursday to Sunday each week. Although she was content with her role at CBS and had the support system in place to make it possible, she wanted to be able to see her children grow up and spend time with them.
At the same time, continuing to cover football was important to her and a reason why she considered a studio-based hosting role. In the end, she was ultimately named the new co-host of Good Morning Football on NFL Network.
“Professionally, I think I was very much honing my skill set to become a really great, strong sideline reporter at CBS,” Erdahl said. “I grasped at the opportunity to become a really great, strong studio host. I’m not there yet – it’s only been six or seven months – but I really wanted this job in particular to get me to a place within the NFL [and] within the industry to be a really good host.”
For 15 hours per week, Erdahl is on television discussing the game of football with Brandt, Schrager, McCourty and Selva, along with a plethora of other guests and industry experts. Entering the role from the perspective of a sideline reporter, she has found many aspects of her previous role permeate into this job, most notably those pertaining to listening to others.
“As a sideline reporter, all you can do is be eyes and ears and you’re just hoping that if you’re not the one saying it on the broadcast, you’re relaying information back to the truck or to the play-by-play guy to make sure that what you’re seeing or hearing on the field is getting on to the broadcast…. I like to take that back into a studio setting. Very easily we could sit around the table and we could each talk for a minute and give our takes, but then you’re not really listening to each other.”
Before landing the job, Erdahl had conversations with Kay Adams where they discussed the role and just what makes it unique. Their discussions left Erdahl energized and eager to get started and disseminate her opinions and points of view to consumers on weekday mornings.
“You get to have your own arc of creativity, no matter what chair you’re sitting in,” Erdahl expressed. “I think Kay did that incredibly well for six years. People loved Kay for all the things that she did – but the job isn’t, ‘Here’s how Kay did it; do it the way Kay did.’ That’s not how it was presented [to] me [and] I don’t think Kay would have wanted it that way.”
Over the years, Erdahl has established relationships with colleagues and competitors alike in sports media, staying in touch and reaching out for advice. She was friendly with many of her colleagues at the NFL on CBS, including Tracy Wolfson, Amanda Balionis and Melanie Collins, along with ESPN/Amazon Prime Video’s Charissa Thompson and NFL Network host Sara Walsh. She also estimates speaking to SEC on CBS analyst Gary Danielson weekly, someone who was instrumental in her development as a broadcaster and learning more about the game of football.
Erdahl and the rest of the Good Morning Football on-air personalities do not simply show up to the studios to broadcast each morning; rather, there is an immense amount of preparation that goes into each and every show beginning the night before.
On a shared document, show producers compile a layout for the next day’s program and Erdahl and the other personalities write notes and perspectives to better inform the rest of the crew as to their individual thought processes. There is a production crew that works overnight to monitor the news cycle and prepare production elements for the next day’s program so by the time 7:00 AM ET comes around, the team is ready to produce three hours of insightful football coverage.
“The information wheel in the NFL is just constantly turning so it’s easier for me just to kind of, throughout the day, remain aware of it so then at night, I can answer all my stuff and then tomorrow, I feel a little bit more prepared,” Erdahl said. “I’m not cramming for an hour before the show…. It’s easy to kind of stay swimming in it.”
As Erdahl reflects on the impending completion of her first full season on the show, she intends to learn from her mistakes, such as relying on certain statistics or storylines as a crutch for extended periods of time, to improve as a studio host. She also aims to augment her creativity, learn more about the history of the game and demonstrate energy for the game – all qualities imbued within Brandt, Schrager and McCourty, respectively – to become a “master of the NFL.”
“I was lucky I got through the season,” Erdahl said. “I learned a lot [and] I got the nuances of the show down. Next year, I hope to elevate even more [and] just push the box a little bit more in terms of making sure I don’t have those crutches.”
Viewers of Good Morning Football or other NFL Network programming might be skeptical towards the legitimacy of some opinions because of the oversight the league has on the broadcast outlet. Yet over her time with NFL Network, Erhardt does not feel as if she has been suppressed in editorializing her views.
Moreover, it is the responsibility of the show to balance subjectivity and the maintenance of professional relationships in football with the display of objectivity and proffering of genuine analysis. After all, she believes the league trusts that she is on the air for a reason, and works to ensure the league communicates its storylines in a way discernible to a variety of demographics.
“I haven’t felt the hindrance whatsoever in terms of editorial direction that would make me feel like I shouldn’t do something,” Erdahl said. “I would say mostly on the daily, I get the green light from the things that we try to accomplish as a show.”
There are many football fans across the United States, and it can be safely assumed that many of them have at least thought about potentially covering the game as a media member. Yet very few aspiring media professionals reach the point Erdahl has; in fact, some of her most memorable moments over the years are when she was told she had received certain jobs. Although her skills on the air are evident, her demeanor and team-oriented mindset has separated herself from other candidates and led to sustained success and growth amid a competitive marketplace.
“Sixty percent of being good at this job has nothing to do with being on television, in my opinion,” Erdahl articulated. “I think it’s about a good, honest, ethical person that is nice to people; that is easy to be around; that coaches and athletes in particular want to be around and want to talk to [and] tell their story to. The other stuff will come because you are speaking to something that you went about the right way.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Why Do NFL Fans Want More Greg Olsen and Less Tony Romo?
Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down film of offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast.
Five years ago, Tony Romo retired as an active NFL player, jumped into the CBS broadcast booth, and immediately became the darling of fans and media for the excitement he brought to his telecasts. Romo’s enthusiasm for the game and understanding of modern offense allowed him to predict plays successfully, making him an instant sensation.
Greg Olsen will finish his second season as a full-time broadcaster on Feb. 12 from the NFL’s biggest stage, calling Super Bowl LVI for Fox with play-by-play partner Kevin Burkhardt. Olsen hasn’t drawn the must-see buzz that Romo did early in his TV career. No fan likely tuned into Fox’s top NFL telecast, “America’s Game of the Week,” to listen to Olsen’s analysis. His work doesn’t draw nearly the same amount of acclaim.
But the shine has worn off Romo with viewers during the past couple of NFL seasons. Watching a game with Romo in the booth previously felt like sitting alongside a fellow fan, jubilant at fantastic plays or clever strategy, and disappointed at performances that fell short. His energy also elevated Jim Nantz as a play-by-play announcer, bringing him back to life after 13 seasons alongside Phil Simms.
Now, however, Romo’s outbursts — noises in place of words, or outright yelling — seem like a crutch when coherent thoughts can’t be articulated. Where there was once fascinating insight from the analyst position, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback often resorts to clichés and platitudes that don’t add to a fan’s understanding of what’s happening on the field.
Worst of all, Romo sometimes talks merely to talk, filling a quiet space when a broadcast needs to breathe or the images are saying enough on their own. That’s especially awkward when paired with a veteran like Nantz, who’s a master at letting the moment speak for itself rather than trying to punctuate it with unnecessary narration.
On Fox’s telecast of the 49ers-Eagles NFC Championship Game, Olsen explained how play-calling changes when an offense intends to go for it on fourth down. He showed an awareness of the strategies that each coach employed to gain an advantage or neutralize what the opponent was doing well.
Early on, he highlighted San Francisco defensive end Joey Bosa holding back on his natural impulse to pursue the quarterback at all costs. Instead, he maintained a position that prevented Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts from running to gain yardage when pass plays weren’t available.
With analysis like this, Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down the film of their respective offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast. He doesn’t appear to be surprised by what he sees because that prep work — watching film, talking to coaches and players — informs him of the eventualities and possibilities that could arise during a game.
The hardcore football fan, those who repeatedly watch highlights and replays, loves that kind of analysis. Such attention to detail feels gratifying because it demonstrates that the person calling the broadcast is as serious about this stuff as the viewer who’s waited all week for the big game.
Yet a more casual fan is also drawn in because of Olsen’s amiable personality and ability to explain things simply and clearly. It’s similar to what viewers enjoy about ESPN’s “ManningCast” for Monday Night Football. Yes, there are jokes and funny moments. But Peyton and Eli Manning both explain strategy and preparation very well.
By comparison, Romo comes off like a broadcaster who’s winging it, letting his personality and enthusiasm fill gaps created by a lack of preparation. That might be a completely unfair criticism. We don’t know what kind of work Romo puts in leading up to a telecast. Maybe he watches as much film as Olsen. Perhaps he talks to everyone available to the broadcast crew in production meetings.
If so, however, that doesn’t show itself on the CBS telecast. Romo’s work on Sunday’s Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game telecast was an improvement over his call of the Bengals-Bills divisional playoff clash. During the previous week, Romo acted as if he didn’t have to provide any insight because this was the match-up fans had anticipated all season and already knew everything about the two teams.
Perhaps in response to that criticism, Romo made a point of highlighting the importance of each team’s defensive coordinator — Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo and Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo, respectively — in disrupting the performance of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. But rather than demonstrate an actual strategy during a replay, he stated that each defense would come after the opposing QB and create pressure.
Ultimately, the difference between Romo and Olsen seems to be schtick versus knowledge. But it’s also a product of how each analyst reached their position. Romo joined CBS’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team without previously calling any games. (As BSM’s Garrett Searight points out, that immediacy and recent connection to the game fueled what felt like fresh analysis.)
Meanwhile, Olsen called games during bye weeks while he was still an active player and was on Fox’s No. 2 crew with Burkhardt before being elevated to top status following the departure of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ESPN. He’s had to get better out of necessity. Even now, as Olsen establishes himself as his network’s top analyst, he faces the possibility of being bumped from that position when Tom Brady retires and cashes in on the massive contract Fox offered him.
Compare that to Romo, who’s the highest-paid NFL analyst on television. His $18 million annual salary set the bar other top broadcasters are trying to reach. And he has seven years remaining on the 10-year contract he signed with CBS. That is significant job security. Even if network executives (or Nantz) lean on Romo to improve his flaws, how much motivation is there when he’s already been anointed a broadcasting king?
However, NFL fans and sports media are making it clear what they prefer from their football broadcasters. They want insight and substance. They want to learn something from the commentary, rather than just be told what they can see for themselves.
Olsen is providing that and is being rightly lauded as a broadcaster living up to his status. Romo is suffering a fall from acclaim and has become a weekly punching bag. If he and CBS want to change that, he’ll have to bring more to the booth each week. In the meantime, Fox should consider appreciating what it already has, rather than welcome a glitzy name.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.