Will Tom Brady actually bring viewers to Fox? Sports Media Mailbag, Part 1

Welcome to the 38th Media Mailbag for The Athletic. Thanks for sending in your questions via the website and app. There were more than 170 questions, so this is Part 1 of a two-parter. (Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.)

Does hiring guys like Tom Brady to broadcast football games REALLY move the needle for viewership? Are there people out there who will say, “Yeah, let’s watch that game because ____ is calling it?” Don’t most fans prefer their own homer broadcasters anyway? Am I way off on this? — Kris A.

It’s an interesting question, Kris, and one that’s discussed within the industry all the time given the extraordinary salaries of the NFL analysts who call the top games for their respective networks. The core answer is that viewers watch games for the game itself; the viewership number would likely be close to the same if you and I were calling it.

But the presentation of the game and how viewers process the game matters greatly to leagues and broadcasters because they want you to leave the broadcast wanting to come back. With leagues specifically, they want people in the booth who they believe represent their product — and leagues have some veto power on broadcast hires, even if the networks don’t publicly admit that.

Now for Brady specifically: His regular-season debut is absolutely going to draw curiosity seekers, and Fox and the NFL set up his debut game to have massive viewership because it features the Dallas Cowboys against the Cleveland Browns in an exclusive national Sunday afternoon window in Week 1. There will be no CBS competition. So that’s a game I would say some people (maybe it’s an extra 500,000 to one million) will tune in to watch how Brady does.

Fox asked its partners at the NFL to load up the early season with games that can draw huge audiences because it didn’t have the success it expected in the 4:25 p.m. ET window last year. So Fox will also air the Baltimore Ravens at the Cowboys in Week 3, the Detroit Lions at the Cowboys in Week 6, and the big prize, a Week 7 Super Bowl rematch between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. These games will all draw well, and there will be some tune-in to see and hear Brady.

Finally, the NFL is a national game, so I think having homer broadcasts for that league would be a mistake. Sure, home-market fans are the most interested, but it is a unique sport where people from all over the country (and globally) tune in. There is a benefit for the league to have neutral announcers. Also, the people behind the scenes (producers, directors, video and graphic editors, etc.) at the national places all work with the broadcasters, and you develop a work process over a season and over years. If they had to work with the local broadcasters each week as one-offs, it’d be a very challenging workflow and, I think, not beneficial for the product.

Can Fox be prohibited from broadcasting future World Cups and Euros? It’s bad enough that they ruined Gus Johnson’s career by putting him into that mess a decade ago. Should we expect Tom Brady to be the lead analyst for the 2026 World Cup? — John F.

Fox has the rights to the 2026 World Cup and signed a deal three years ago that covers the 2028 Euros. They also just announced they will be the home of the women’s Euros in 2025. If you want a different rightsholder, it won’t happen until next decade.

Having watched a ton of TSN’s coverage of the Copa América and Euros, the presentation and philosophy in Canada is far superior to Fox. I’ve been down the road what seems like a million times with Fox executives on their soccer coverage, and they have a philosophy (U.S.-centric coverage, avoid any host-country controversy, etc.), and it’s not going to change. I do think they have improved significantly with their coverage of major women’s soccer events, and I appreciate their tonnage there. Fox executives will point to the viewership of the Euros and Copa América this month as proof people are responding to their coverage, and they have a good viewership story to tell. Would the numbers be the same on NBC or ABC given the teams that are playing? Of course.

Gotta disagree on Gus. He’s Fox’s lead college football broadcaster. The guy’s career is fine. While I don’t expect to see Brady as the lead analyst for the 2026 World Cup — I can’t see anyone other than Landon Donovan given Fox executives are high on him — I can guarantee Brady will play a role in the coverage (think hosting a taped feature or Q&A) if he’s still working in broadcasting. Too big a name on the Fox Corp. balance sheet not to be used somewhere for an American World Cup.



‘A stadium for ants’: TV camera angle for USMNT game criticized

How feasible would it be to severely reduce the number of commercials on a streaming game as a way to entice more fans to watch? Could you imagine there ever being a PPV football game in which there are commercials only between quarters and after a team scores? — Gerry S.

We’ve seen ad-free tiers on streaming services, so this can certainly be done conceptually. But given how much the streaming services have paid for sports content, the best way to recoup the expenditure is through subscriptions (of course) but also ad buys. I don’t think this would be enough of an incentive for consumers to sign up in droves at what would be a higher price. When we get deep into the 2030s, I think this is more feasible and certainly for non-football sports. The emergence of advertising as a second revenue stream should help push direct-to-consumer options into profitability.

Can anyone please convince ESPN and Apple TV (and any other offenders out there) to stop with mic’ing up players while they are in the field trying to play a baseball game? Bad enough they even do this, they also ask the most inane questions. — Mach D.

I am in the minority on this because it doesn’t bother me much, yet it really seems to annoy baseball fans. Access brings us closer to games, so I like this stuff philosophically. I do agree that these interviews rarely produce great moments of insight, but I think it’s worth it to do 100 of these, even if you get only four of five great moments. But again, I think you are in the majority here.

I don’t understand how networks can continue to obtain TV rights to sports leagues when the price keeps doubling and tripling every few years. Will there come a point in the next decade when they walk away from packages other than NFL rights? — Bruce W.

The research firm MoffettNathanson recently released a report that said the first quarter of 2024 was the worst ever for pay-TV subscriber losses for all distributors. So the question is where is the floor for all of this, especially traditionally-delivered linear video, and what does it mean that marquee sporting events have increasingly moved to streaming platforms?

The reality is the NFL is keeping some of these networks afloat. The sport was responsible for 97 of the 100 most-watched TV broadcasts in the U.S. in 2023. The NBA is obviously getting a massive rights increase that will become formal soon. The UFC will get a raise too. As we head down the road, I think the big question is this: Where do live sports rights fit in the business model for streaming-based entities? If those companies decide they need sports to keep subscriptions up, I think major sports rights will continue to rise. Whether it is a smart business strategy, especially for those who have lost billions on streaming, is an entirely different question.

(Many fans) complain about national announcers when their team is on a national outlet, particularly ESPN. Why don’t the national networks hire announcers from the two competing teams to call the game? We would all benefit from far more knowledgeable announcers telling us about the teams and get to hear some different game calls. — Bradley M.

Contractually, this isn’t feasible, and networks want to put on their own presentations. There are plenty of home announcers who are not close to neutral, and you’d also get plenty of complaints about that.

Women's College World Series

Oklahoma’s win over Texas in the Women’s College World Series finals set a new record for the most-watched title series in the sport. (Brian Bahr / Getty Images)

As women’s sports have gotten more popular, leagues and networks have begun to realize they’re sources of untapped revenue. Do you think the WNBA, women’s college basketball, college softball and the like have enough draw/power to help bring people back to linear TV? — Jesse K.

There is no panacea to bring people back to linear television. We don’t live in that world anymore. Now, within the linear world that still exists, I think every property you mentioned above has significant growth potential and is a draw for places such as CBS, ABC, ESPN, FS1, Big Ten Network, etc. The numbers don’t lie.

South Carolina’s win over Iowa in the women’s college basketball title game was seen by an astonishing 18.9 million viewers and peaked at 24.1 million viewers. Absolutely, Caitlin Clark was the driver of that, but the entire tournament was up, including games Clark did not play in (UConn’s win over USC in the Elite Eight drew 6.7 million viewers.). This year’s Women’s College World Series championship finals between Oklahoma and Texas set a new record for the most-watched title series, averaging two million viewers. I have been writing for more than a decade that women’s sports is an undervalued viewership play, and it’s cool to see where the numbers are now, but it’s still undervalued, as you suggest. Plenty of growth left.

Can you arrange a Pat McAfee versus Alexi Lalas match at the next WrestleMania? Alexi Lalas thinks he’s the god of American soccer. Yes, American soccer is a huge disappointment and never will be successful, but Lalas needs to go away and I nominate Pat McAfee to make it happen. — Adam A.

Couple of things. First, humanity has a ways to go until the end, so don’t give up on U.S. soccer forever. Any country with a population of 340 million and economic might always has a chance to be a sporting force in any sport. But Copa América was brutal for the U.S., and there’s no sugarcoating that.

McAfee has morphed between a babyface and a heel announcer in the WWE. Lalas obviously loves being a professional broadcast heel. You could easily sell this by turning McAfee into the big babyface for a match. McAfee could invade Fox’s Copa América final telecast and destroy the Fox set. Lalas defends Fox. It’s on.

But the real issue is Fox’s time with the WWE is quickly coming to a close as WWE’s “Friday Night SmackDown” is returning to USA Network in October. No way the WWE is going to waste any storyline time on a partner who did not renew with them. This match will not happen.



Alexi Lalas and Stu Holden – bold, opinionated but never just ‘fine’

With the SEC releasing kickoff times for its early games well in advance, is it possible that we see any other networks follow this path? As someone who craves college football information in the summer this has helped me plan out my Saturdays in my head. — Paul G.

One of the issues here is contractual — there are conferences that share college football game inventory across networks. So take Big Ten football, for example: From what I understand, the media partners cannot put anything out further than 12 days in advance because no one partner controls the whole package. It’s definitely fan-friendly to release the times early for planning purposes, but designating windows for all SEC games after Week 3 prior to the start of the season is a benefit of the new conference rights agreement between the Southeastern Conference and ESPN. That’s why ESPN and the SEC could do this.

(Top photo of Tom Brady broadcasting during the UFL championship game in June: Rick Ulreich / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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