Less than 24 hours after his network announced it had returned to the business of broadcasting the NFL, NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol had already received 35 to 40 calls from agents pitching their clients. Such is the nature of the hottest parlor game among sports broadcasting people: Who will be the on-air talent for NBC and ESPN when their respective NFL deals kick off in 2006?
Somehow we doubt Ebersol or ESPN president George Bodenheimer will be calling Adecco or Kelly Services for hiring tips, but we at SI.com are more than happy to help. Here's how we'd staff the NFL coverage for NBC's Sunday Night Football and ESPN's Monday Night Football come 2006:
NBC Pregame Show
Bob Costas, Cris Collinsworth, Tiki Barber, Mary Carillo and Sal Paolantonio
Costas is the capo di tutti of NBC's on-air talent and he'll have his choice of working in the booth or studio. Here's hoping he picks the studio, because it's the best forum for him to use his superb talents as an interviewer and master of ceremonies.
Making Costas your lead studio host sends the message that in addition to the bells and whistles you'll provide, you are serious about journalism. His presence would give the studio show gravitas when discussing serious topics such as steroids. The bonus here is that Costas is already familiar with the league, thanks to his work on HBO's Inside the NFL. His current contract expires in July 2006, but with multiple Olympics coming up, NBC isn't going to let him get away.
Then there's Collinsworth, a provocative voice who has a ready-made chemistry with Costas, his colleague on Inside the NFL. Collinsworth's contract with FOX expires at the end of this season and he has a history with Ebersol that dates back to 1989, when as a just-retired player he began calling games for NBC. I'd give Collinsworth a blank cashier's check and tell him to fill it out. He serves viewers by speaking his mind unapologetically and he's unafraid to ruffle feathers, which is rare when it comes to the NFL (yes, I'm referring to you, House Government Reform Committee members).
Collinsworth is versatile enough to work in either the booth or studio, but I think he's more effective in the studio. On Friday he told the New York Post's excellent sports TV critic Andrew Marchand that "No matter where I work, nothing will ever change how I feel about Dick Ebersol, both professionally and personally."
If I'm Ebersol, I'm bringing out the full-court charm offense, but FOX will and should do whatever it can to retain Collinsworth.
Barber told me he's planning to play in 2006, but I'd make him the same offer-you-can't-refuse that TNT made Steve Kerr when he was deciding whether to return to the Spurs. The Giants running back wants to work in broadcasting after his playing days are over, and he's accumulated some impressive experience (he's worked as a sports anchor for the local CBS affiliate in New York City, hosted a sports-talk show on WFAN and taken a couple of spins on Fox & Friends).
Barber is glib, thoughtful and would give NBC someone with first-hand knowledge of players in the league. He can be a TV star if surrounded with quality people.
Carillo isn't just the best analyst in tennis. Her journalism on HBO's Real Sports is exemplary and she'd be terrific in a roving reporter role where she could do long-form features. It'd be a bold stroke to include her on NFL coverage, but a winning one.
The final piece of a great studio show is a reporter with terrific sources and the nose of a bloodhound. Paolantonio, who cut his chops in politics at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1985 to 1995, does tremendous work for ESPN. If I'm Ebersol, I try to pull a Bob Irsay and steal him out of Bristol in the middle of the night.
John Madden (analyst), Marv Albert (play-by-play) and Lynn Swann (sideline)
I put Madden first because that's the hire NBC has to make. It's not that people tune in for announcers -- they don't -- and ABC learned that the hard way with Monday Night Football. But Madden gives you immediate cachet and a big-game feel. Even at 69, he's one of the few cross-over stars in sports broadcasting thanks to his video game empire, with a Q-rating that transcends across demographic and racial lines. And he's still among the best analysts around.
You want to reward Tom Hammond for being a good soldier? Fine by me. The guy's a pro whether he's calling Arena Football, the Penn Relays or waxing about Smarty Jones in the Preakness Stakes. But my guess is that NBC will opt for Albert, who has really developed nice chemistry with Boomer Esiason on Westwood One's radio broadcast of Monday Night Football.
Swann may challenge Ed Rendell for Governor of Pennsylvania -- the former Steeler leads the field of Republican candidates at 25 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released April 21. As ABC's top sideline reporter, Swann has improved every year and he has experience covering the NFL on a primetime stage. (He worked as a sideline reporter on MNF from 1994 to 1997) And if he's running for Governor, NBC could have a budding Arnold Schwarzenneger on its hands. Talk about free publicity. Swann, who has been a fulltime employee at ABC since 1983, probably wouldn't leave the network but it's worth the cost of a phone call to find out.