Chris Fowler has won the Brent Musburger sweepstakes.
ESPN officially named Fowler as Musburger's play-by-play replacement for ABC's Saturday Night Football package on Thursday. Fowler will work with analyst Kirk Herbstreit and sideline reporter Heather Cox for that assignment, as well as for the new College Football Playoff including the national championship game. As important to college football fans, Fowler will continue to host College GameDay, a position he has held since 1990. The 51-year-old will also remain a commentator on ESPN's tennis coverage, which includes the Australian Open, French Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
Fowler's contract was set to expire after the World Cup in July, which gave him significant leverage with his employer. ESPN did not want to lose him to a competitor such as CBS. In an extended interview with SI last year, Fowler left little doubt about the jobs he wanted in Bristol. "I don't think it is anything secret internally what I want the next [role] for me to be at ESPN," Fowler said. "I don't think that is a mystery given the landscape. It's why GameDay is a unique standalone thing for me. It doesn't act or feel like a studio show. But the live events are the most inspiring, unexplored thing for me. I really have a passion to document live events as they happen. Hosting is wonderful and remains really satisfying, but the joy for me is calling big matches."
James Andrew Miller, who wrote a best-selling book on the history of ESPN, tweeted that Fowler's new contract (which runs through 2023) is worth $35 million with a yearly average in the mid-$3 million range.
"I am very excited about hosting GameDay for a 25th year and extending my work with Kirk Herbstreit for a 19th season and beyond," said Fowler in a statement. "There is a strong legacy of top college football voices on ABC, from Chris Schenkel to Keith Jackson to Brent Musburger. I'm looking forward to returning to the booth and being a part of that incredible tradition. As for tennis, I can't wait to continue and expand my role."
John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president, programming and production, said he became convinced that having Fowler double on Saturdays could work after multiple conversations with Fowler and the Saturday Night Football broadcast producer, Bill Bonnell. Fowler will likely travel from GameDay to an alternate game site in about half the weeks of the college football season.
"Bill was confident he could not only make it work, but it would be successful," Wildhack said. "Knowing Chris as I do and knowing his relationship with Kirk, I made the decision to move forward. All of our conversations were very candid, constructive and collegial. It wasn't like I'm the management guy and he's the play-by-play guy. It was two guys talking about Chris' future and he knew from the get-go I wanted him to stay with the company for a long time."
Wildhack added that he never felt like Fowler would leave ESPN at any point during the negotiations.
Fowler joined ESPN in July 1986 as the first host and reporter of Scholastic Sports America. Over the years, he has also hosted the network's coverage of World Cup soccer, SportsCenter, SportsCentury, horse racing's Triple Crown and men's college basketball. He called ESPN's Thursday night college football series from 2006-09.
The next contractual domino for ESPN management to address is Rece Davis, a standout performer whose contract is coming up. Davis was also interested in becoming Musburger's replacement. He currently calls Thursday night football games and hosts college football and college basketball studio shows.
"We love Rece Davis," Wildhack said. "We love the work he does for us. Rece is a very important and valued contributor to what we do in the college space. I would like to see him remain in that position for years to come. We want him for a long, long time."
As for Fowler's predecessor on the ABC package, Musburger was officially introduced on Wednesday as part of the lead broadcast team for the upcoming SEC Network, which launches in August. He'll be paired with Jesse Palmer. They will debut on Aug. 28 with Texas A&M's season opener at South Carolina. Musburger's new deal is for multiple years and includes calling a bowl game on ESPN, as well as Big 12 basketball.
In a phone interview with SI.com on Wednesday, Musburger said he was excited about calling SEC games. "This is not, 'Oh my goodness, I'm not doing the national championship game,'" he said. "I'm going to spend that night, in fact, with my wife and sons in Montana. We'll sell (betting) squares, and have a great time. I'm in a very good place. I'm an old guy with a three-year contract and I can afford to buy my own beer."
Fowler also ultimately wanted to stay at ESPN given his long ties to the company and his colleagues. I asked him last year why he chose to stay at ESPN for close to 30 years.
"A gut feeling," Fowler said. "Sometimes it was a last-minute decision. As other networks have shown interest or made offers, I always eagerly listened -- you'd be foolish not to do so. I was close one time. I think if you are going to make a seismic shift in your career, you should do it for the right reasons -- for exciting, new opportunities. You don't leave out of anger. You leave because the next thing is more exciting."
Ultimately, Fowler opted to stay. He will now be ESPN's most visible on-air employee every fall.