Every sports fan has their preferences when it comes to how they watch their favorite teams. Who do you want on the call for the game? What network are you hoping it’s on? Do you like the ambiance of a primetime game, or would you rather it be played in the afternoon?
Not many sports, however, can match the number of options that the NFL has for how you watch your team or the must-watch game of the week. With five networks broadcasting games throughout the season, four of them getting playoff games and a rotation determining who gets the Super Bowl, the possibilities are endless throughout the year.
But, if you could pick one network to always have your team’s games, or always have that one game that you’re excited to watch, which would it be? That’s where we come in.
Out of the five networks broadcasting NFL games in 2019 (CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC, and the NFL Network), it’s time to determine who is the best of the best when the red light turns on and the cameras get turned to the action on the field.
Full disclosure: Being the lowest spot on this list is more reflective on how good the top three broadcasts are, and ESPN has a lot of factors out of its control that it has to deal with for its Monday Night Football and Wild Card Weekend matchups that it has the ability to air.
In all honesty, you could argue that the respective broadcasts in this countdown could go 1-3, with a 4a and a 4b. But, we’re going to play fair as it relates to this countdown, and someone has to open up the list in the fifth spot.
ESPN gets the short end of the stick when it comes to the quality of their games, and that obviously hinders their ability to put on a great broadcast that captivates fans and keeps them hooked for four quarters of football on a Monday night.
Look no further than the most recent games that they’ve gotten in the league’s schedule, with the Mason Rudolph-led Steelers squaring off with the previously-winless Dolphins, and the Cowboys battling the Giants, featuring Dak Prescott going one-on-one with Daniel Jones.
Add in the fact that they usually get the AFC South team’s Wild Card game once January rolls around, and it’s a lackluster formula that ESPN is forced to deal with for their weekly games.
Game quality aside, I believe there is some potential with the current ESPN broadcast team of Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. Fans haven’t been able to see them at their/McFarland’s peak yet aside from the down-to-the-wire game between the Packers and Lions during the first half of the 2019 season, but they may hit their stride as the ESPN team gets the Seahawks and 49ers in primetime.
But, from a graphics and entertainment standpoint, ESPN hasn’t been able to replicate the same quality that networks like NBC, CBS and FOX have been able to create during their games, taking away from any big-game feel on Monday nights.
Whether it’s a graphic showcasing a Bill Belichick defense as a board game, or comparing Andy Reid and Sean McVay to literal scientists, it can take away from the moment at times to utilize over-the-top elements when simple graphics or statistics could do the trick.
While the effort is there and the idea of doing something to stand out is respectable, the execution doesn’t truly compare to the higher-ups in the NFL’s broadcast fray.
4. NFL Network
Again, putting NFL Network as the fourth broadcast out of the five is not a slight against the network or the announcers that are a part of it. I liken it to being the Cardinals in a division with the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams: There’s talent there and plenty to work with, but the other teams have more to offer and been on the big stage multiple times.
In my mind, the biggest problems the NFL Network faces when it comes to their broadcast are simple:
- The ease of having access to the channel on television and/or finding it.
- The frequency of games that they are able to air.
The first problem may just impact a select few, and it could be as simple as physically making sure you sign up for a package that has the NFL Network, or plopping a sticky note on your forehead with the number of the channel it’s on. But, the second problem is something with more substance to it.
Sure, Sunday Night Football is only on once a week and it will still earn itself a high spot in this ranking. But, NBC is getting, at the time the schedule is made, what is viewed as a top-tier game to let fans ride off into the sunset at the end of a long day of football.
But, the NFL Network’s on the opposite end of the equation. Out of the limited games they get, most are simulcast on FOX for Thursday Night Football, or they get the 9:30 a.m. London games (which, in the case of November 3, 2019, was a blowout win for the Texans over the Jaguars).
Not getting the same reps that other networks do does hurt them at times, but I believe, given their circumstances, that they put on a quality broadcast with their announcers and analysts.
Their pregame show is top-notch to lead into any games they get, and having mainstay names like Rich Eisen calling play-by-play out in London makes any matchup feel bigger just by hearing his voice. Adding in NFL legends like Kurt Warner, Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin just tops it all out perfectly, providing a well-rounded four-man team that tops ESPN in my book.
The quartet has only done a few games together, given the network’s infrequent assignments, but the chemistry has been there for years, and seems to fit the style that the network is looking for with their broadcasts.
Much like the MLB Network, the talent is there for the NFL Network to put up a real fight when it comes to hosting games in the league’s schedule. The problem comes when they have to share a game with FOX, or only get one or two Saturday slates in December to work with.
Give them a full year to hone their craft as it relates to a new era of sports broadcasting dominated by social media, and allow them to enter the homes of a wider/more exclusive audience, and I think they could easily match up with some of the Big Three channels when it comes to NFL coverage.
Now, it’s time to dive into the Super Bowl rotation, starting with the home of Super Bowl LIV: FOX.
Many argue that FOX is the top dog as it relates to overall sports coverage, between their NFL games and their coverage of the MLB postseason. Much of that can be attributed to one man: Joe Buck.
Buck and broadcast partner Troy Aikman are one of the longer-tenured broadcast teams in the NFL world, and will call their sixth Super Bowl together when the time comes to head down to Miami in February. That dynamic has worked consistently for almost two decades at this point, and it has become a major factor as it relates to FOX’s football success.
Other elements surrounding that team are just bonuses, with a simple set of brand standards attached to their broadcasts as it relates to graphics and sound. You have FOX’s robot running around your screen during games, and two versions of the same intro song that strike a chord in football fans’ hearts every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon.
Plus, the network seems to have an innate ability to hit the perfect balance when it comes to crowd noise during games. Joe Buck screaming in excitement over fans that sound like they could blow the roof off of the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota is an all-time broadcast call in my mind, and shows just how good the network can be when the big moments come along.
Unfortunately, like having a good backup quarterback in case Patrick Mahomes gets hurt, I don’t think FOX’s broadcast groupings under their “A-Team” match up to the depth of a network like CBS. That difference was evident during the weekends where Joe Buck drew World Series duty, with Troy Aikman teaming up with Thom Brennaman instead.
Ultimately, that top-heavy announcing roster hurts them in this countdown, dropping FOX to the third spot on the list.
As a bonus, if you want an in-depth look at what goes into a FOX Sports broadcast for an NFL game, look no further than this incredible piece by The Verge in 2013.
The debate about which is better between CBS and FOX has raged on for years at this point, which fans going back-and-forth about which announcers they like and despise.
Some fans like Joe Buck and think he’s one of the best play-by-play announcers in the game today, and others feel compelled to mute their televisions the second he and Troy Aikman show up on the screen.
Then, there are those who prefer Jim Nantz and the overall aura his presence provides, creating a big-game feel the second you hear, “Hello, friends” at the start of a broadcast.
Personally, I would (and have) put Nantz at the top of the totem pole as it relates to the best active sports announcers, and it helps that he’s partnered up with the man who took home the sixth spot on that list: Tony Romo.
>>RELATED: Pick-Six: Best active sports announcers
The Nantz-Romo team is one of the better decisions the CBS higher-ups, or any sports media entities, have made in the last decade, pairing up a rising media star with arguably the most established name in all of sports at the moment.
Some fans are sick of the Romo schtick after a few seasons of listening to him predict play calls left and right, but the chemistry the duo has after just a few years together can’t be topped at the moment.
Away from the announcing, the network has shown an incredible ability to hold up their usual brand standards over the years while still keeping things fresh, showcasing themselves as the same nostalgic broadcast that fans are used to while still adapting to the times when necessary changes come along.
Their intros when big games come around are unbeatable, their graphics are simple and to the point, and their audio work between their announcing, music and crowd noise is top-notch.
They also haven’t gotten complacent with their success over the years as they continue to tweak and try new things during games, like having Nantz and Romo on the field for a few series during a recent game between the Chargers and Packers.
As far as the topic of depth, as mentioned in the breakdown of FOX’s broadcast, CBS may have the best announcers across any sport when it comes to the NFL:
- Jim Nantz is the top name in the business, and you have a star in Ian Eagle waiting in the wings as the number two play-by-play man, as well.
- Greg Gumbel and Kevin Harlan have been around for years, serving as high-quality third and fourth-string options for weeks when CBS has a great slate of games.
- Tracy Wolfson and Evan Washburn are great assets down on the field for in-game reporting and updates.
- An experienced analyst like Phil Simms is at the ready doing work on the “NFL Today” in case any last-second opportunity were to arise.
When your second and third teams could compete, if not exceed, a broadcast from a network like FOX or ESPN, you’re in pretty good shape. For that reason, CBS takes home the silver medal in this countdown.
The gold standard for NFL coverage has to be NBC, evident by the fact that they’re what you see before you go to bed on a busy Sunday during football season. The league knows it, other networks know it and many fans have already taken notice.
There was once a time when Monday Night Football was the premier item on the NFL’s slate, with fans rushing home from work or staying up late on Monday night to watch and listen to Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Frank Gifford, Al Michaels and tons of other notable names. Nowadays, fans are still watching Michaels, but just on the new top NFL broadcast.
NBC has done it all perfectly in its takeover of the NFL, between its star announcing team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, its iconic theme song(s), and its high-quality graphical overlays and analysis.
They have reinvented the game with a lot of their camera angles, including their use of the “Madden” view over the last few years. They continue to innovate on that end, and know when to tone it back if fans aren’t reacting positively to any changes they make.
In the meantime, they’ve built up quite the nostalgia for fans over the years, with the same song playing over their intros for years, similar replays being used in crucial moments and a great studio show both before the game and during halftime to keep fans hooked during any breaks in the action.
Because of all of this, they’ve earned themselves the top billing each week when it comes to the NFL’s slate. Patriots playing the Ravens last week? NBC’s on it. How about a marvelous matchup between the Cowboys and Vikings a week later? You’ll see it on Sunday Night Football.
Six of the nine games they had to start the 2019 season were one-possession games, and the others were between the Patriots and Ravens, Cowboys and Eagles, and the Patriots and Steelers. Even when they’re blowouts, the games feature big enough names to keep people watching.
NBC has taken over the NFL landscape over the years and rounded up most of the league’s top games, but they also know how to make any lower-tier games still feel important. A Matt Moore-led Chiefs squad looking to take down an impressive Packers roster? It was still the best game of the week, with Michaels and Collinsworth reminding fans that anything is possible on both sides of the ball.
They know how to make things seem insane or call back relevant information, like Matt Moore scouting for the Dolphins just a few months prior to taking over as the Chiefs starter in place of Patrick Mahomes.
The craziest part? It doesn’t look like NBC is going anywhere, even if Michaels decides to hang up the microphone in a year or two. With Mike Tirico still waiting to take over as the lead play-by-play man on the network’s NFL games, the league seems to be in good hands as it relates to their primetime games on Sunday nights.
With all of that in mind, NBC is the easy choice for the top NFL broadcast today.