It is amazing to consider that Tony Romo has called just 11 NFL games for CBS Sports— six Sunday broadcasts and five Thursday Night Football games. As far as a professional sports broadcasting resume, Romo’s is minuscule compared to most in his position. Yet if you asked the average NFL fan for a list of the best pro football television analysts, I’d bet Romo would already rank near the top, if not at the top of the list.
“This has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Jim Rikhoff, the lead producer of CBS's top NFL team. “Why? First I think we had a good plan. I know that sounds cliché but from [CBS Sports chairman] Sean McManus to [lead play by play broadcaster] Jim Nantz to myself, he had a good plan and it started right after The Masters in April. And we have stuck to the plan even though this took off more than we expected. Whether Tony was good or bad, we would have stayed the course.
“The second thing is Tony has real natural ability doing this. Sure, I think we laid a good groundwork but he does some things that are so natural that you can’t teach. He has a natural excitement and passion about the game and a great balance of enjoying the game and making people enjoy he and Jim calling it. Most importantly when he sees what is on the field, he has a great way of expressing it to people in a way they enjoy and understand.”
If the NFL MVP voting extended to those beyond the field, you could make a strong case for Romo, the rare NFL broadcaster who has received both massive fan and industry praise this season. Particularly remarkable is CBS gambled heavily in naming Romo as its lead game analyst with zero network broadcasting experience. It meant that he would be learning the mechanics of broadcasting on the fly while doing the network’s most significant NFL game every week— and sometimes two games per week. That’s a high-wire tightrope to walk no matter how bright or prepared you are in an era where social media opinions about broadcasters are impossible to ignore. In April I argued why I would have assigned Romo to the No. 2 team to start his career. At the time I asked McManus why he named Romo to the top team.
“People have said to us, ‘Boy, you're taking a guy who is coming right from the field into a position as a lead analyst, isn't that a risk?’ Well, I think it's a very manageable risk, to be honest with you,” McManus said. “Will he be better Week 6 than he is Week 1? Yes, he will be. Will he better in Year 2 than he will be in Year 1, yes he will. But if we didn't have the faith in Tony, if we didn't have the faith that he could be an outstanding analyst, we wouldn't be taking this risk.”
Rikhoff is clearly one of the reasons why this has worked. He has worked for CBS Sports since 1985 but this was his first year producing CBS’s top NFL team following the last three seasons as the replay producer for Thursday Night Football. As soon as The Masters was over, Rikhoff initiated the plan to help Romo’s comfort level with the mechanics and jargon of an NFL broadcast. That plan included making multiple trips to Romo’s home in Dallas before the season— the first came in late April and monitoring the work Romo did to prepare prior to the season.
Prior to the exhibition season, Romo called numerous games off videotape in a Dallas-area studio alongside Cowboys radio voice Brad Sham. There was also what Dallas Morning News writer Barry Horn tabbed as a “broadcasting boot camp” in this profile of Romo. The games Romo called in Dallas were critiqued by Rikhoff, McManus and other senior managers in New York. Romo did eight rehearsal games in total, including five studio rehearsals using previous telecasts where CBS cleaned the announcing off of the playback. He also did three live remote telecasts. In total, Rikhoff made six trips to Dallas to Romo’s home prior to the season.
"I've known Jim since the first day he walked into the CBS Broadcast Center in September 1985,” said Nantz, in an email. “He's gone from being a studio researcher to the lead producer of the NFL and nothing he has achieved surprises me. He has always been a tremendous team player. He's bright, organized and committed to doing things right. He learned much of his leadership skills at the knee of the great Lance Barrow [who produced the Nantz and Phil Simms team as well as CBS’s golf coverage] and served as his understudy on golf and football for years. You've heard about all the practice games. In addition, there were production meetings with coaches and players for the rehearsal games which was generous of them to do. There were critical reviews of each broadcast that never spared the truth. His message at the moment is one we all uphold: we can get better."
Rikhoff said something he noticed immediately about Romo was that his brain works very quickly for an analyst. Where this helped was the homework Rikhoff would give Romo to improve on three facets of a broadcast. For instance, Rikhoff would tell Romo to work on wrapping up quicker after a play, when to draw on the telestrator, or practicing for a 30-second open as opposed to a two-minute open. They also worked hard on television nomenclature. Romo had to learn replay angle titles such as “cart angle,” which is an isolated camera on the quarterback or “Pitt framing,” which is the camera ISO that goes from tackle to tackle and covers all the interior line play. Rikhoff said there are various names of ISOs that cover specific parts of the field and/or players. Romo had to learn this in addition to figuring out how to tell a story of a play in short order.
“One of the hardest things to do is to talk concisely in television,” Rikhoff said. “Tony has 10 to 15 seconds maybe to make a strong point after Jim calls a play. That is where I have seen great improvement. Tony has a lot to say but you have to say it within the confines of TV. He is getting a really good handle on it. He now understands the weekly drill and you build on that. We have the foundation. Now it is fine-tuning stuff.”
The magic trick that Romo has gotten the most attention for is his ability to predict plays prior to the snap. But Rikhoff sees that as a tertiary part of Romo’s work rather than his primary skill. “I think people caught on to that quickly but if you listen to our games he might do that three or four a game at the right time,” Rikhoff said. “The predicting is a fun little thing and he does it at the right time but it’s not the headline. The headline is he has a fun and fresh perspective and he has a really good at analyzing what is on the field.”
Something that has really helped Romo— and by extension the whole crew—is the comfort level players and coaches have with Romo in the Friday and Saturday production meetings CBS has with the teams. “The coaches and players can relate to him when he comes in,” Rikhoff said. “They either know him, played against him, or were teammates of his. The coaches love to talk football with him and the players see him as a contemporary. He is fresh from the game and he asks good questions.”
Camaraderie is a big part of what makes a sports broadcasting crew work and every Friday night a 10-person crew on the Romo team goes out to dinner in the city they’ve been assigned. Rikhoff said Romo is often animated at these dinners, excited about rehashing what he learned in the production meeting with the teams. The CBS crew holds its formal production meeting on Saturday night where they discuss the major storylines of the game, and what Nantz and Romo want to discuss at the top of the broadcast. On Sunday, Nantz and Romo will do a quick rehearsal about 90 minutes before kickoff and then again 15 minutes before they go live.
Worth noting, Rikhoff said, is how much Nantz has helped Romo this year. If you watch the games, it sounds like Nantz has been rejuvenated by the opportunity to work with a fresh and unique voice.
“Jim really works on the chemistry of our group,” Rikhoff said. “Taking Tony under his wing is not exactly the correct term but he has taken a lead on building a partnership from Day One. But what I really want to emphasize is how Jim bends the telecast to make Tony feel comfortable. He’s expert at seguing back into the game smoothly after Tony makes a point. That is a huge asset for a guy starting out. And I’m not just saying that. Watch our broadcast. There is no place we go where Jim can’t figure how to get us back on task to the game. That helps Tony a lot.”
The Rikhoff crew did five games in 15 days before getting this Sunday off. But the next few weeks are very big for Romo. He will call his last TNF game on Thursday (Bills-Jets) and then gets the Chiefs at Cowboys on Nov. 5 at 4:25 p.m. ET, the first time Romo will be on the call for his old team. There will be a massive amount of attention for that call. On the topic of Romo getting an itch to return to the field, Rikhoff said Romo has never mentioned returning to the NFL in the time he has know him. (Logic states that if Romo does not return to the NFL this year, he’s not coming back in the future.) “We’ve never had that conversation,” Rikhoff said. “I can’t speak for him but I think he is having fun here.”
Most sports broadcasters have to manage the negative comments they get, particularly on social media. Romo, however, is in the rare position of managing a mass of positive press. (A recent New York Times story praising Romo was headlined: “Answer to N.F.L. Viewers’ Prayers: Tony Romo, the Play Predictor.”) Rickhoff said Romo is built not to believe his own positive press.
“I think when you are a Dallas Cowboys quarterback you have seen it all,” Rikhoff said. “Right after Week One or Two when all these great stories came out, I was really glad he said to me, 'We have to stay the course on what we planned No one has to worry about me. It just pushes me to work harder.' As a player, Tony said he never got hung up on one great game. So it’s not something I’ve had to worry about which is terrific for me.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. Episode 143 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features two guests: Kimberley A. Martin and Chad Millman. Martin will join the Washington Post in November to cover the Washington Redskins. She previously covered the Jets for Newsday and worked as a sports columnist for The Buffalo News. Millman is the new head of Media for The Action Network, which is a sports analysis company specializing in sports gambling information. He previously worked an ESPN’s vice president and editorial director of U.S. digital content.
In this podcast Martin discusses how she became a Washington Post reporter; the challenge of joining an NFL beat in the middle of the season; why she left the Buffalo News; being the only African-American female sports columnist at major U.S. daily; how she views Jemele Hill’s tenure at ESPN; working in the city of Buffalo; her thoughts on Barstool’s partnership (and its dissolution) with ESPN; how successful the Bills can be in 2017 and beyond; Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s relationship with the press, and much more.
Millman discusses why he took the job at The Action Network; how he plans to put together a staff; where sports gambling content is heading; what Sports Insights, FantasyLabs and SportsAction are; why he feels podcasts are an important business play in the sports gambling information space; why the betting audience grow; whether mainstream sports media outlets will have a gambling beat; why the line is a certain number; how he felt about ESPN’s dissolution with Barstool; where he looks for his gambling information; why minor sports such as WNBA give sharp bettors an advantage; how one becomes a sports oddsmaker and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.
1a. ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown opened its show with a 19-minute discussion on the comments of Houston Texans owner Robert McNair including a detailed report from reporter Josina Anderson on what many of the Texans and Seahawks players felt. The Countdown panel came down hard on McNair and it was a strong segment. “It doesn’t fly,” said analyst Randy Moss. “We always used to wonder what ownership thought of us as players. Now you have a guy like Bob McNair going to the owners meetings and guess what —he got caught. Then you want to come out with an apology but the apology doesn’t fly.” Said panelist Matt Hasselbeck: “When an NFL player hears that comment or phrase I think it takes them back to what happened 30 years ago to the strike of 1987 when the president of the Dallas Cowboys, Tex Schramm, said to the players during the labor strife: “What you need to realize is that we are the ranchers and you are the cattle and we can get more cattle.” That saying has not gone away.
Added panelist Rex Ryan: “It’s not like the man misspoke; he offended.”
Finally, analyst Louis Riddick: “This whole situation for me really represents a stunning lack of awareness, mindfulness and respect for the social issues that are going in the country, for how sensitive players are right now and rightfully so as far as where they stand socially in this country and the NFL. I think it sends a message out to the rest of the owners in the National Football League that you really need to get to know what is going on at the ground level of your football team.”
1b. CBS NFL Today host James Brown on McNair’s comments.
2. Last week amid the very public dissolution of a partnership between ESPN and Barstool Sports, Jenn Sterger, a former SI.com columnist as well as New York Jets game day host who now works as a comedian and actress, detailed her experiences trying out for jobs at ESPN in 2006 in a long Twitter message. In the post, Sterger said part of her interview process included a strip club outing in Charlotte in 2006, and being brought up to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Ct. in 2008 for what she described as a bogus interview. You can read the post in its entirety above.
In an interview this week, Will Carroll, a sportswriter specializing in the coverage of medical issues who has worked for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and other publications, confirmed he was in Charlotte at the strip club outing in 2006. He said he was brought to Charlotte to talk to ESPN talent coordinators and that Sterger was also trying out for shows during the Charlotte trip. They became friends and remain friends to this day. Carroll eventually became an on-air member of The Fantasy Show, a short-lived ESPN program that ran for 11 episodes in 2006.
“A big group went out for dinner and then afterward four people including Jenn and I went to a strip club,” Carroll said. “I figured Jenn knew where we were going but apparently she didn’t. I honestly thought nothing of the night at the time. I had a good time. I didn’t see anything inappropriate from the talent directed toward her her other than the fact they took her there without her knowing in the first place.”
Said Sterger in her post: “I was extremely uncomfortable by the situation and incredibly awkward as I had never stepped foot in one before. I had to watch as my male coworkers got lap-dances from girls while they teased me about how I was uncomfortable and didn’t want to participate.”
Carroll said he did not want to name the two ESPN employees who went to the club with him and Sterger but did say they were on-air talent and one remains working at ESPN. He said that Sterger told him that ESPN managers admonished her for going to a strip club the next day and that she believed it impacted her chances on that show. “She was already a little controversial but that was to me the tipping point and I know from talking to the person who later got the job she was going for they called her for the job the next day,” Carroll said.
In a statement on Friday ESPN said, "We have no record of this ever being brought to our attention. We thoroughly investigate all allegations brought to us. Fostering a professional and respectful workplace is a top priority for ESPN and we always encourage people to report any issues.”
Carroll insists that ESPN-based management in Charlotte in 2006 knew what happened. “I wasn’t an employee then and Jenn was not an employee but two of their people were,” Carroll said. “If they [ESPN] were not made aware of this, it is because the producers did not run it up. But it happened. The way I interpreted ESPN’s statement was it never happened and that is not the case. I was there and I have pictures from that night.”
Carroll added that he would be willing to talk to ESPN if they called him.
On Sunday an ESPN spokesperson followed up, "We have been in touch with Jenn. Anything further will be confidential"
3. Ohio State’s dramatic win over Penn State drew a 6.4 overnight rating, the highest-ever rating for Fox for a regular season college football game. The game tracks to being the second most-watched college football game this year. ABC’s telecast of Alabama-Florida State on Sept. 2 drew a 7.3 overnight rating and finished with 12.3 million viewers.
3a. Good post on 2017 World Series ratings from Jon Lewis of Sports Media Watch. Fox Sports knew the ratings would be down significantly from last year’s dream Cubs-Indians series but the Astros-Dodgers have performed very well for the network. Game Four drew a 10.6 overnight rating, which beat last year’s Game Four rating (10.5) and was the best Game 4 overnight since 2009.
3b. ESPN’s College GameDay aired from Columbus, Ohio this week for the 17 time. The 17 trips to Columbus are the most of any campus for the show.
3c. Nice work by Fox Sports MLB postgame producer Royce Dickerson who noticed Clayton Kershaw on the mound following L.A.’s Game Four win. Dickerson hustled to get the footage on screen and Fox Sports viewers ended up with a nice visual.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• Frontline had a remarkable look at the rise of Vladimir Putin. I’d urge you to watch this.
• NYT’s Dionne Searcey on 18 girls Boko Haram deployed as suicide bombers
• Via the NYT's opinion pages: How I Accidentally Turned My Dad into Immigration Services • From Carey Purcell, writing for Longreads: A fat person walking into a doctor’s office can expect lectures, condescension and misdiagnoses from a medical culture that chalks every health issue up to weight• Via The New Yorker and Marshall project: A portrait of crime and punishment in America today• From NYT’s Ron Leiber: A Student Loan Nightmare: The Teacher in the Wrong Payment Plan• From Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker: Weighing the Costs of Speaking Out About Harvey Weinstein• From NYT writer Dan Barry: "The Lost Children of Tuam" his story from Ireland about the dead, and the living• Via Andrew Brown of the Guardian: The war against Pope Francis • Politico's Tim Alberta dropped a 12,000-word piece on a no-holds-barred John BoehnerSports pieces of note• SI’s Tom Verducci on why the Yankees got rid of Joe Girardi—baseball analysis at its highest• ESPN’s Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham went inside the NFL owners meetings on NFL activism• From Alexandra Starr of Harpers: What the U.S. Olympic Committee can—and can’t—do about sexual abuse• Verducci on the historic World Series Home Run Rate • Interesting think-piece on the LeBronization of the NBA from Jason Concepcion of The Ringer • MMQB’s Peter King on Chris Mortensen and his Stage Four cancer • How UO’s Title IX investigation of Kavell Bigby-Williams’ alleged rape stalled before it began• SI’s Chris Ballard profiles the ageless Jamal Crawford• Via Dustin Long of NBC Sports: From Amish life to a job in NASCAR • Breanna Stewart, for The Players Tribune, opens up about being molested as a nine-year-old. Courageous piece.5. One of the biggest storylines looming over the NBA season is the impending free agency of LeBron James. The speculation about where James will play in 2018-19 will be a discussion point across the sports media. As part of an NBA media roundtable this week with seven influential voices, I asked the group where they expect James to end up next season.• Howard Beck, NBA writer, Bleacher Report• Candace Buckner, Wizards reporter, Washington Post• Tania Ganguli, Lakers reporter, L.A. Times• Adam Himmelsbach, Celtics reporter, Boston Globe• Frank Isola, NBA columnist, New York Daily News, SiriusXM NBA Radio host, Around The Horn panelist.• Michael Lee, senior NBA writer, Yahoo! Sports• Marcus Thompson, columnist, The Athletic Bay AreaHere’s the piece5a. ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, host of The Jump, had an excellent segment on Hornets broadcaster Stephanie Ready—and the quieting of one of the NBA's really smart and interesting voices. The reasons given for the reduction of airtime for Ready on Hornets broadcast are strange.5b. Toronto Sports Media interviewed Canadian writers on The Athletic.5c. Undeniable with Joe Buck, an interview show which airs on The Audience Network through DirectTV and DirectTV Now, has a very good guest list coming up including Martina Navratilova (Nov. 1), Cal Ripken (Nov. 15). David Robinson (Dec. 6) and Brett Hull (Dec. 13). There is also the loathsome Bobby Knight on Nov. 8.5d. New York Times media reporter Sapna Maheshwari on six-second commercials in sports.5e. Great response from Kevin Durant to a reporter who forgot his question in a press conference.