Tony Romo And The 'Shiny New Toy' Syndrome of Sports Media

There seems to be a different kind of free agency that follows every league’s season, one where the teams are looking for that rare blend of fresh faces and veteran know-how that can get them over the hump.

Yes, the annual ritual of sports broadcasters tempting newly-retired star athletes to join their studio teams and play-by-play teams made the news again this week. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had barely let the ink dry on his retirement papers when he signed an offer to not only join CBS Sports, but to join its ‘A’ play-by-play team with absolutely zero experience in the media game.

The deal, which had been in the works for at least a month, was welcomed in some respects because it bumped down the oft-criticized Phil Simms to the network’s ‘B’ team and out of the nationally-televised games on Sundays. However, it also raised eyebrows (and some ire) because without even having to prove himself by working with other broadcast pairings at the network, Romo essentially becomes “the face” of CBS Sports as its No. 1 commentator alongside venerated sportscaster Jim Nantz. Not to mention that it also puts Romo in line for working the Super Bowl in 2019.

CBS has been shaking up its in-house NFL team for the last couple of seasons to bring buzz to what has been its no-frills, or quite frankly, no-excitement coverage of the league. The network, one where all of its programming feels like someone looped the plot of Pleasantville, has been desperate to shake the perception that it’s only watched by people above a certain age (It’s definitely the least diverse network. Another story for another time).

Just as there was a few years ago between ESPN and Turner Sports over the services of Shaquille O’Neal, you can imagine that there was quite the bidding war for Romo between CBS and FOX. After all, you could say that the quarterback was essentially a FOX product thanks to its long-time broadcasting rights to NFC games and how often the network has shown and marketed the Cowboys. That FOX was interested shouldn’t have been a surprise. The powers there will throw out large sums to just about anyone, whether they are former ESPN employees, hot take impresarios or former athletes that were “good quotes” to reporters. FOX may have knocked it out of the park a few times with Michael Strahan, Alex Rodriguez and, to less fanfare, AJ Pierzynski. However, there was no guarantee that plucking Romo off the NFL scrap heap for a similar role (if offered) would have worked out just as well.

Yes, there’s a chance that Romo can shock us all and turn out to be an excellent color man to complement the technical chops of Nantz. Or he could fall into the fiery pit of many infamous failed bets made by TV executives that errantly believe “big names” and “star power” can translate from the field to the studio or broadcast booth. Or perhaps Romo ends up being, well, just plain average with indistinguishable analysis and an even-keeled approach to calling games.

The problem here is that CBS, like all other TV networks, is taking a big bet that the sports viewing public will see what it did in those private negotiations. Certainly decision-makers know how calling the action of live games is a different animal from providing studio analysis; just ask Turner Sports about its ambitious approach to covering the NBA this season with the Monday night ‘Players Only’ broadcasts, Area 21 with Kevin Garnett and more. They also know that just because active players provided great soundbites, doesn’t mean that they will be naturals at actually talking to the fans – which is essentially the job of the in-stadium broadcast team – for a few hours straight on television.

Yet, just as in every sports offseason, networks can act like the teams they love featuring that fall for the “biggest names available.” It’s "shiny new toy" syndrome at its finest. In the business side of media, executives by and large live in a bubble so thick and unbreakable that it takes a while for them to notice their mistakes. The bubble is how Curt Schilling lasted far longer than warranted. It’s how the Pam Oliver/Erin Andrews switch became an embarrassing ordeal (aided by the ‘shooting the dozens’ commentary from NFL Twitter, if we are being honest). It’s how someone thought that giving the already divisive Charles Barkley a controversial show that may never actually air was a good idea.

Maybe for Tony Romo, this isn’t much different from his own playing experience where not only did he come from almost nowhere to become the face of the Dallas Cowboys, but was also usurped in a similar fashion to end his playing career. In fact, it seems that similar rise is what CBS is banking on, for better or worse.

(Then again, this is the same network that helped support someone else with no prior experience for a premier job, so maybe it believes that this will be “great for ratings,” too).

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