Buck and Aikman explain how they ended up on ESPN. And TV role in Heat/Panthers conflict

Max Faulkner/Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner
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When Joe Buck and Troy Aikman signed off after calling the Rams-49ers NFC Championship Game in January, there was always the possibility Aikman could leave as a free agent.

But Buck, the longtime voice of Fox Sports, leaving too?

“Didn’t see it coming,” Buck said. “And, gosh, I’m glad it did.”

The NFL has been full of relocation surprises this offseason, with Tyreek Hill landing in Miami, Davante Adams in Las Vegas and Russell Wilson in Denver.

But the move of Buck and Aikman — from Fox to ESPN — ranks high on any list.

“It’s an historic property. To be a part of it, is really special for me,” Aikman said Monday during an ESPN conference call with both men on the day both stepped foot on ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. campus for the first time.

When Aikman decided to join ESPN, Buck asked Fox for permission to leave with a year left on his contract. Fox granted it, appreciative of his 27 years of service, which included eight Sports Emmy Awards.

And so Buck and Aikman — paired together for 20 years on Fox — will remain partners on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” at least for the next five years and for a total reported salary of $155 million over the length of the deal.

This season, they will match Pat Summerall and John Madden’s record for the longest partnership by network NFL announcers.

“To get to do Monday Night Football, get to do it with Troy and Lisa Salters, it’s going to be an absolute blast,” said Buck, whose legendary father Jack called Monday Night Football for CBS Radio. “I can’t tell you how many times I went into a Monday Night Football radio booth with he and Hank Stram and watched some of the greats to ever broadcast on television go into the Monday Night Football booth never even thinking I could end up there. I’ve never been this excited. It’s a new chapter in my life and our lives.”

ESPN will pay tens of millions in salary for Aikman (reportedly earning $18 million a year) and Buck ($15 million a year) and 10 alternate ESPN2 telecasts handled by Peyton and Eli Manning, who reportedly make Aikman money, combined, though that incorporates other work that the brothers do for the company.

But network leadership believes this will raise the cache of MNF, which long ago was surpassed by NBC’s Sunday Night Football as the signature prime time package.

MNF, in its heyday, had iconic announcers — Howard Cosell, John Madden, Frank Gifford, Al Michaels and Don Meredith. ESPN has lacked that since taking over the package, and Buck and Aikman are the closest they’ve come to matching the booth star power of MNF during its halcyon years.

“When you have the opportunity to bring in the iconic, longest-running NFL broadcasting duo, you take it, especially at a time when we are on the cusp of a new era in our expanding relationship with the NFL,” ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said.

Aikman rejected a Fox contract offer before the 2021 season and he said a couple of months ago that Fox never made another offer, presumably because they weren’t close on financial terms.

“Most of the discussions were centered around working Thursday on Amazon and continuing double header games on Fox,” Aikman said Monday. “As we moved through conversations, to continue on the schedule I had been would have been challenging. Then ESPN began conversations with me. This was the best fit for me. [Not] until after the Super Bowl did I think [ESPN] was a possibility.”

After Aikman took the job at ESPN, Amazon ultimately hired Kirk Herbstreit to team with Michaels on its 15-game Thursday package.

At ESPN, Aikman’s reported $18 million annual salary will match what CBS gave Tony Romo.

Since losing Aikman, Fox reached an agreement with Tom Brady to become its lead analyst after Brady retires from playing. Until that happens, former Miami Hurricanes and NFL tight end Greg Olsen could fill that lead analyst role - alongside new Fox lead play-by-play voice Kevin Burkhardt.

Aikman said the chance to be on MNF “has me motivated and reflective. As a kid in California, the voices of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, and my mom’s personal favorite, Don Meredith, echoed throughout our living room each week. Joe and I are humbled to be part of that same tradition.”

Buck, who is married to ESPN reporter Michelle Beisner-Buck, was appreciate that Fox allowed him to escape his contract with one year remaining.

“I left there on really good terms,” Buck said. “They understood how much I wanted to come to ESPN, how it was such a good fit in my life. Having a wife who has worked here eight years and having two little boys at home. Simplifying and pairing things down in my life made a lot of sense.”

Buck and Aikman have called six Super Bowls together, but they will need to wait until 2027 before ABC and ESPN get one. The two networks also have the 2031 game; four years after the Buck and Aikman contracts expire.

Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews won’t accompany them to ESPN; Salters will remain ESPN’s sideline reporter and also remains ESPN’s lead NBA sideline reporter. (She’s in town for Heat-Celtics.)

“The toughest call I had to make was to Erin Andrews, to tell her I’ve leaving,” Aikman said. “She’s like a sister to both of us.”

Buck and Aikman replace ESPN’s previous MNF team of Steve Levy, Brian Griese (now an assistant coach with the 49ers) and Louis Riddick.

Buck and Aikman will contribute content to ESPN plus (the network’s streaming service), but there are no plans for Buck to call any baseball.

HEAT PANTHERS CONFLICT

Every Heat and Panthers playoff home game — potentially four of them — will conflict over the next two weeks, even though both teams preferred this not happen.

According to two network television sources, ESPN contractually had first choice of the two Eastern Conference NHL semifinals and wanted New York Rangers-Carolina instead of Panthers-Tampa Bay. But the NHL has the right to overrule ESPN’s choice if there are arena conflicts or extenuating factors, a network source said.

“The NHL ultimately sets the schedule, not ESPN,” a source involved in the process said Monday.

Because ESPN also has rights to the NBA Eastern Conference finals between the Heat and Celtics, the Rangers series — if given to ESPN -- had to be on different nights than the Heat games.

And that meant that TNT — the NHL’s other rights holder — was left with the Panthers-Lightning series and those games needed to be played - for the most part - on the nights that the Heat and Celtics are playing. TNT is carrying the NBA’s Western Finals on alternate nights.

The first Panthers games on Tuesday and Thursday will start at 7 p.m., 90 minutes before the tipoff for Heat games.

Every game in the Heat-Celtics and Panthers-Lightning will conflict except Game 3 of both series.

Game 3 of the Heat series will be Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN. Game 3 of the Panthers-Lightning series had to be played on Sunday afternoon (at 1:30 p.m.) because of a Saturday night concert at Tampa’s arena.

“Obviously for Florida fans, this is unfortunate,” the Panthers said in a statement to The Miami Herald. “The Panthers management and NHL have been in touch regarding scheduling. There are eight teams, four series and exclusive TV windows that need to be filled for league rightsholders during the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Between Broadcast and building commitments and obligations, it is a complex puzzle that needs to be pieced together, while ensuring that the competitive demands on all Clubs are comparable.”