Why ex-Cowboys like Jason Witten and Tony Romo get the best NFL TV jobsSporting News — firstname.lastname@example.org (Michael McCarthy)
NEW YORK — As Waylon Jennings sang, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys" — that is, unless they play for the Dallas Cowboys, because former stars of "America's Team" seem to score the best jobs in NFL television.
During ESPN's "upfront" presentation Tuesday in Manhattan, the network trotted out former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten as its new game analyst for "Monday Night Football." Witten will join ex-Dallas quarterbacks Tony Romo (CBS Sports) and Troy Aikman (Fox Sports) in the broadcast booth. That means three of the four color analyst roles at the league's TV partners will be filled by former Cowboys.
Not to mention, there's a group of other former Cowpokes in NFL TV, including Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders and DeMarcus Ware at NFL Network; Jimmy Johnson and Daryl Johnston at Fox; and Darren Woodson at ESPN. It's a broadcasting lineage that dates to former QB "Dandy" Don Meredith, who served in the original "MNF" booth with Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson, and then with Frank Gifford.
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No. 1 NFL game analyst is among the most highly paid, most sought-after jobs in all of TV. Jon Gruden, Witten's predecessor in the "MNF" booth, was ESPN's highest-paid employee at $6.5 million a year, according to author James Andrew Miller.
These plum jobs only come available once a decade or so. Ex-Giants QB Phil Simms reigned as CBS Sports' No. 1 analyst for 20 years before being displaced by Romo in 2017. Aikman has been No. 1 at Fox Sports with play-by-play partner Joe Buck for 17 years, making them the league's longest-running TV team. If Cris Collinsworth ever hangs them up at NBC Sports, don't be surprised to see another ex-Cowboy make it a clean TV sweep.
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Naturally, this delights Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who made a surprise appearance alongside Witten, new "MNF" play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore and field analyst Booger McFarland. Jones is one of the savviest businessmen in sports. He knows ex-Cowboys on TV means free publicity for the Cowboys brand, which is the most valuable in the NFL with a current valuation of $4.8 billion, according to Forbes.
The Cowboys have appeared more times on "MNF" than any other team, Jones proudly told Madison Avenue media buyers Tuesday. With Jones, it's all about the Star, all the time.
"We're always saying, 'Please, look at us,'" Jones said.
Witten said he never would have landed the job without Jones and the Cowboys. "I certainly appreciate that," he said.
Sporting News was first to report that Witten was interested in TV. Fox Sports auditioned Witten for "Thursday Night Football" before he took the ESPN job.
Months ahead of Witten's first regular-season "MNF" broadcast with Tessitore, McFarland and sideline reporter Lisa Salters on Sept. 10, SN asked on-air-talent, executives and agents why, exactly, former Cowboys will dominate NFL TV this fall and why they get the top broadcast jobs instead of, say, former Redskins, Giants or Patriots. Here are some of the reasons given:
— They're known commodities. When a network lands a Cowboys game, it inevitably sends its No. 1 broadcast/production team. That means current Cowboys players get to mingle with the best broadcasters, producers and directors in sports TV. They spend hours at production meetings. They meet the top network executives. That pays off when it comes time for them to hang up their cleats.
"Look, we all know that the Cowboys are the team that networks would like to see as much as possible on their schedules, so they're getting the experience with the top-notch groups that come through there when you talk about a production meeting," said Stephanie Druley, ESPN's senior vice president of event and studio production. The experience prepares former Cowboys stars to "be extremely eloquent and able to understand sort of what this side of the camera is like," she added.
Similarly, CBS chairman Sean McManus and lead play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz were impressed with Romo's personality/football acumen long before he retired. Both thought Romo would be a TV natural. Nantz knew he was right as soon as the duo sat down to call their first practice game.
"This is going to sound crazy to say, but by the time we finished the fourth quarter of that [practice] game, I thought he was ready to go on the air," Nantz said during the NFL playoffs. "His instincts are off the charts."
— They bring a built-in audience. There's a reason the NFL's TV partners — ESPN, CBS, Fox and NBC — practically kill each other for the rights to air Cowboys games. Win or lose, "America's Team" draws the highest ratings. When a Witten or a Romo enters the broadcast booth, the networks can highlight a former player who is already a household name.
The Cowboys factor "gives you a built-in fan base for a new broadcaster coming in," said one top agent. "Witten's had a lot of exposure, a long, incredible career."
When Witten auditioned with Tessitore against competitors such as Browns tackle Joe Thomas, his Cowboys history gave him an advantage, the agent added. "Do you want to put a third Cowboy in the booth or a guy who played for an 0-16 team (Thomas)? This is a copycat league," the agent said.
— They're used to the media spotlight: Former Cowboys land TV jobs for the same reason ex-Giants like Simms and Michael Strahan and ex-Yankees like Mark Teixeira land media gigs: They're accustomed to dealing with big-market local media who follow their every move, according to Tessitore.
"When you are a superstar Dallas Cowboy, when that star is on the side of your helmet, you wake up every day dealing with the pressure, the coverage," he said. "And I think that a lot of guys who have gone through that, they equip themselves incredibly well with the media . . . and there's just no denying that experience."
Love them or loathe them, fans watch the Cowboys. They don't completely give up their rooting interest, either for or against, when Dallas' stars move into TV, according to ESPN commentator and native Texan Will Cain.
"Maybe it’s the star. Maybe it’s the blue and silver. Maybe it was Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman," Cain told Sporting News in an interview. "But the Dallas Cowboys, in my estimation, symbolize what’s great about the state of Texas, and what’s great about the state of Texas symbolizes what’s great about the United States of America. They are America’s Team."