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What the Chase for Tony Romo Means

It was reported that ESPN was interested in hiring the coveted color commentator before his CBS mega-deal. Considering Monday Night Football’s history of flashy and unique hires—from Jon Gruden to Tony Kornheiser to Dennis Miller—what conclusions can we draw about ESPN’s next move?

There are two things we could take away from the news that Tony Romo will make $17 million a season to call football games for CBS.

One is that the pool of former player analysts is so deeply homogeneous and uninteresting that even the slightest departure—a person who can provide a whiff of genuine excitement while maintaining a firm (or, in Romo’s case, exemplary) grasp on what’s happening on the field—is worth a small fortune to a network interested in being a major player in football.

The other is that a person’s salary never gets to become the biggest salary in the history of the job title without some help from outside competition vying for their services. And, as the New York Post reported this weekend, Romo was being courted by ESPN should he have hit the broadcaster equivalent of free agency.

The latter should be far more interesting to us than salary gawking because, at least to me, it signifies ESPN’s desire to stabilize the Monday Night Football franchise in a way that they haven’t been able to since the (relative) halcyon days of Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico. Regardless of how you felt about the pair’s Applebees In House Buddy Cop Movie vibe, they were able to handle the moment. They exuded the proper gravitas. Monday Night Football felt like an event with their vocal accompaniment and less like it does today—almost like the game has caught the announcers by surprise and they’re scrambling to keep up.

Monday Night Football as a property has been through some strange trips in the woods. It’s hard to believe that during the most recent Bush presidency one could flip on prime-time weeknight football and, instead, get three hours’ worth of uncensored concussion bits from comedian Dennis Miller. There was the Tony Kornheiser experiment. Ron Jaworski. Some of it went better than others (though, for the life of me, I cannot shake a memory of Miller doing a bit about what would happen if the referees had cameras affixed to their “protective cup” areas some 20 years later and I’m still unsure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing).

The challenge now is to find a solution with the color analyst world marred in the football equivalent of a quarterback drought. All of the good ones—Troy Aikman, Romo, Charles Davis, Cris Collinsworth—are spoken for. Going back to the figurative pipeline means experimenting and, perhaps, finding yourself cemented in the same unfavorable situation you’re in now. Leaving orbit and rekindling the days of Dennis Miller and Tony Kornheiser could yield something especially interesting and effectively combat the disparity out of sheer entertainment value, or it could do the one thing that any announcing crew, regardless of skill or likability shouldn’t do: Make people turn the television off on a product with guaranteed return.

Luckily for ESPN, they’re nowhere near such a place of desperation. We can complain about every commentary whiff and threaten to mute the broadcast. We can take to social media and rage about the fact that Commentator X said it was a bad play in real time when, upon closer inspection, the play design was actually quite good. Regardless, we will be there, Pavlovian and salivating for more. They know that.

But they also know that Romo’s surge onto the landscape again created the difference between a game that is good and a game that is better because someone is narrating the action. Their hunt to replicate that high is worth keeping an eye on.

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