Chris Fowler acknowledges the concern. He knows people both inside and outside of ESPN believe it is too much for one person to host College GameDay on Saturday morning and then call ESPN's marquee football game of the week hours later on ABC's Saturday Night Football. Last month, Fowler signed a nine-year contract extension through 2023 that will keep him at ESPN through his 60th birthday. Along with the Albert Pujols-length contract is the responsibility that come with it: Fowler becomes college football's most prominent on-air face given his twin assignments. He will also call (with Kirk Herbstreit) one of the college football playoff semifinals and the national title game next January.
"The precedent had already been set with Kirk so it wasn't necessarily breaking new ground," Fowler said in an interview with SI.com this week. "I think people are rightfully concerned about the quality of both projects so it took a lot of thought on my part to come up with a plan. It also took the willingness of Saturday Night Football producer Bill Bonnell and Kirk to want it to happen. And you have to convince (management) that it is not too much to handle. Getting in the booth is something I've wanted to do and looked for opportunities to do since I had to give up Thursday night [college football] about four years ago."
The new contract also calls for Fowler to be the lead broadcaster for ESPN's coverage of the tennis Majors and the North American Masters series events. How did he land such a stocked portfolio? Well, it pays to have leverage, timing, a solid reputation in-house, and some big guns for representation. Last January, prior to the BCS title game, ESPN management told Brent Musburger that they wanted to bring in someone new for his Saturday Night Football role as well as the national title game. (Musburger has since taken the job as the lead football broadcaster for the SEC Network.) Management knew of Fowler's desire to call college football and, more importantly, they knew that his contact would expire this July. In order to keep Fowler during an exclusive negotiating window, they had to act with relative speed.
"We had a lot of common ground very quickly and that is never something you can take for granted," Fowler said. "It is a business negotiation and sometimes the parties have very different ideas about what they want. That has been the case in the past as it is would be for any of us that have been at a company for a long time. But this was very professional, cordial negotiations. We reached common ground quickly and well before the expiration of my deal."
Fowler told ESPN management what he thought he could handle but the specific negotiating of his contract was done by Fowler's longtime agent, Phil de Picciotto, the founder and president of Octagon Worldwide. (The firm represents athletes such as Jimmie Johnson and Michael Phelps and broadcasters such as Fowler, Bill Cowher and Herm Edwards.) Agents with connections and clients at multiple networks provide leverage because they can play networks off each other. In this case, Fowler and ESPN's goals were closely aligned, which led to a fast agreement. James Andrew Miller, the author of a best-selling book on the history of ESPN, reported that Fowler's yearly income for the new deal would be around the mid-$3-million mark.
How will Fowler's specific assignments work? He said he expects to fly from the College GameDay site to a different site five of the 15 GameDay weeks. (The pregame show will undoubtedly to go to multiple SEC sites again, including weeks where CBS is airing the game at that site; GameDay also usually goes to an alternate site as they did last year when they traveled to Fargo, North Dakota.) Fowler said his preparation will start every Sunday where he will review the game of the team he will call the following week. During the week, he'll have conference calls with coaches and players. He will also prepare on plane trips from the GameDay site to the site of the Saturday night game. "It's not like you are watching a movie on the plane," Fowler said. "You are using that time to prepare."
Fowler and Herbstreit will call the national championship game and one of the semifinals, though Fowler has no idea which semifinal he will get. He did say he expected his emphasis would be on calling games in the postseason so the likelihood is ESPN will have a new studio host for its college football playoff coverage.
As for how long Fowler will do the GameDay-Saturday Night Football double, ESPN executive vice president John Wildhack told SI.com on Friday that "ours and Chris's focus is on the upcoming season. We always evaluate each and every season in detailed scrutiny."
Said Fowler on this question: "At this point, my college football focus is on the coming season and enjoying both roles. I'm confident about juggling them and very excited about the challenge. As I've mentioned, my long-term priority is on the play by play roles in both CFB and tennis, and I'm gratified to be given those opportunities."
Fowler's extension is one of the longest in ESPN history, but the broadcaster said he never sought out a long-term deal. "Flexibility and the freedom to move on if something did not feel right has always been more important to me than long-term security," Fowler said. "The length of the contract at first was daunting. You might say the longer the deal the better but that is never really how I felt. But I have also never been in a situation where everything I wanted to do [professionally] is right there for me. Whenever you sign a long deal the one caveat is "What else is out there that you are taking yourself out of play for?" But this is a dream portfolio. There was nothing else out there that could outweigh those things."
Fowler said he has not yet reached out to Musburger but he plans to do so soon. "I take very seriously the responsibility and legacy of that position." Fowler said. "I grew up listening to Chris Schenkel. He was the voice of the big games when I was first falling in love with the sport. Keith Jackson's work speaks for itself. Brent has followed that legacy and is a legend as well. I am very mindful of that. I have a very cordial relationship with Brent and I am sure I will speak to him and wish him well for his next phase."
While Fox Sports 1's college football show has not proven to be a ratings worry for GameDay, the launch of the SEC Network comes this August. Given the region's passion for college football and some famous SEC athletes (Tim Tebow, Greg McElroy) on the SEC Network's upcoming Saturday pregame show, Fowler acknowledged that his own ESPN colleagues might swipe viewers from GameDay in the upcoming years. "I'm sure they will take some viewers," Fowler said, laughing, "but I hope not too much."
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. There will be a total of 30 cameras, three mobile units, one airplane, two trucks, two motorcycles and a 170-person production crew working on Universal Sports's coverage of the Boston Marathon on Monday. The network will air the race exclusively. Coverage begins with a pre-race show at 8:30 a.m. ET, with live coverage of the race running from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. A live wrap-up show will air from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. and the race will then replay at both 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. UniversalSports.com will feature a "finish line web cam" showing runners crossing the finish line. After April 21, runners can access the video on demand and search their finish line time.
1a. MLB Network has upped its coverage of the Red Sox this week given the significance of the Boston Marathon. The network will broadcast the Orioles-Red Sox game on Monday (11 a.m. ET) as well as the Yankees-Red Sox game on Tuesday (7:00 p.m. ET). There will also be live episodes of "Intentional Talk" from Fenway Park on those two days.
2. CBS announced last month that former NFL quarterback Trent Green had been hired as a game analyst this season. Though CBS declined to announce which play by play announcer Green would be assigned, Greg Gumbel does not have a partner following the retirement of Dan Dierdorf. The wise decision (and an overwhelming popular choice based on social media) would be to move the team of Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts up to the No. 2 slot behind Jim Nantz and Phil Simms and slot Gumbel with a new partner (voilà, Green!) at the No. 3 position.
2a. Dierdorf told me last November that he wanted to work a Michigan game on the radio in 2014. Well, he's going to get more than one. Last week the 64-year-old announced that he had signed a three-year contract to work as a radio analyst for Michigan football. The former Michigan tackle -- Dierdorf played under Coach Bo Schembechler -- will work beside his former Wolverines teammate, Jim Brandstatter, who is moving from analyst to play-by-play after 34 years.
3. ESPN versus Fox Sports 1, Episode 2,472: After some trash-talking by ESPN president John Skipper and research chief Artie Bulgrin on Murdoch Land, Fox Sports 1's Jay Onrait responded with a nice on-air spot.
3a. Sports Media Watch reported that The Masters recorded its lowest average rating since 1957. Here's a chart that amplifies that.
4. Sports pieces of note:
•SI Longform presented Boston: One Year Later
•Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman examined the troubling case of former NFL Pro Bowler and NFL Network analyst Darren Sharper:
•Sports On Earth produced a strong mini-documentary on 78-year-old runner Bill Iffrig, the runner in the orange singlet at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
•Washington Post staffer Rick Maese profiled Bernard Hopkins
•Jonathan Hock's mini-documentary series on Steve Nash has been terrific.
•From SI Video, here's how last week's "Boston Strong" magazine photo shoot came together.
•NYT's Seth Stephens-Davidowitz on how people choose their sports teams.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Highly recommend Outside The Lines's work on an ex-Army Ranger who fired at Pat Tillman in 2004. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.
•Here's the Boston Globe's special section on this year's marathon.
•Texas Monthly's Stephen Lich on why he decided to watch his father's killer die:
•A portrait of strength and marriage from Eric Moskowitz of The Boston Globe. Just read.
5. ESPN's coverage of the 2014 NCAA Division I Men's Frozen Four Championship Game -- Union College defeating the University of Minnesota -- averaged 717,000 viewers, a 33 percent increase over last year's game. The highest-rated markets for the final: Minneapolis-St. Paul; Denver; Las Vegas; Columbus; and Providence.
5a. The 2014 WNBA Draft averaged 413,000 viewers on ESPN2, the second most-watched WNBA Draft in network history and up nine percent from last year's much-hyped draft. Baseball fans will be interested in this: The 2013 MLB Draft last June on MLB Network drew 277,000 viewers.
5b. Aided by the Stadium Series and rivalry games on Wednesday night, NBCSN had its most-watched NHL regular season ever, averaging 351,000 viewers over 88 telecasts. That was up six percent compared to the last full NHL regular season in 2011-12 (332,000). The previous record for a full regular season was set during the 2010-11 season (348,000 average viewers over 52 telecasts). Through 100 regular-season games across NBC and NBCSN, NBC Sports Group said it averaged 532,000 viewers, up 11 percent over the last full regular season.
5c. Here's a Q&A I did with UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma on whether college athletes should be paid and how he would handle an openly gay player.
5d. The tabloid battle between the New York Daily News and Toronto Sun during the Raptors-Nets playoff series has been sensational.
5e. Tremendous class by San Antonio coach Greg Popovich with this shout-out for TNT NBA reporter Craig Sager -- Sager has been diagnosed with acute leukemia and will be undergoing treatment for the next several weeks.