As New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady writhed in pain near the 50- yard line of Gillette Stadium last Sunday afternoon, grabbing his left knee after a hit by a Kansas City Chiefs defender, a collective gasp went out across the land. Not just from the living rooms and sports bars of Boston, or from fantasy football fans with Brady on their team, but from Madison Avenue and television-network headquarters. Brady, the consensus best player in the NFL's gold-standard franchise, is a rare commodity: a Super Bowl winning, super-model dating (Gisele Bundchen), MVP quarterback, who is equally at home on the cover of a sports magazine as he is in the pages of a glossy celebrity tabloid.
In short, Tom Brady is money. He makes lots of it, and generates much more of it for the NFL and the networks that broadcast his games. For the past few years, the NFL has taken in an average of more than $3 billion in annual television revenue, and recently, Brady has been the sport's biggest draw. As news spread on Monday that he would be out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the sports media went into a frenzy analyzing the impact: Could the Patriots win without him? Was it a dirty hit? Has anyone told Brett Favre? And, perhaps the biggest question: what's this going to cost? Not in terms of wins or touchdowns, but ratings, eyeballs, money. What's Brady worth?
"You can't really quantify it," says CBS Sports President Sean McManus, whose network was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Brady's record-setting MVP season, and has a lot to lose from a year without him. CBS pays the NFL $622 million a year for the rights to its AFC package, and carries more Patriots games than any other network. Last year, the Patriots were ratings kings, pulling massive television audiences as Brady set league records for yards (4,800) and touchdowns (50) thrown in a year. Their Dec. 3 game, against the Baltimore Ravens, on ESPN, drew the biggest audience (17.5 million) in the history of cable TV. By the time the Patriots played the Indianapolis Colts, on Nov. 4, which turned out to be the highest rated program of the entire 2007 fall broadcast television season, with 33.8 million viewers, CBS was charging more than $700,000 for a 30-second commercial. According to a report by The New York Times, the most expensive 30-second spot for a drama series last year was $419,000 for ABC's "Grey's Anatomy." By the end of the season, while NFL ratings on FOX, NBC and ESPN were down from the previous year, CBS's ratings were up 5 percent, which allowed them to sell advertising at higher rates this year, though by how much is uncertain (CBS won't comment on ad rates).
McManus insists it's too early to predict what the financial fallout of a Brady-less season might be. "If the Patriots continue to win and dominate like they have," he says, "then the effect will be minimal. They're still a marquee team without him." Still, even if the Patriots keep winning, it seems a safe bet that backup quarterback Matt Cassel, who until this Sunday won't have started a football game since high school, will not be quite the draw that Tom Brady has been.
"Without a doubt, less people will be watching," says Rick Gentile, a former CBS Sports executive who now runs the Seton Hall University Sports Poll, which tracks public attitudes toward the business of sports. That's not to say that the Patriots, or the league for that matter, will lose money as a result. The Patriots sold out all eight home games this year a long time ago, and they're already booked for the maximum number of nationally televised games allowed by the league, with five. Even Brady's pocketbook won't likely get squeezed. He still gets his $5 million base salary, plus a $3 million roster bonus this year. His endorsement deals, which netted him $9 million in 2007, could take a hit, but that seems unlikely. Brady is said to turn down more endorsements than any other professional athlete, and is the pitchman for a small stable of high-end products: Movado watches, Coca-Cola's Glaceau Smartwater, and Sirius Satellite Radio. But the networks, particularly NBC ESPN, and the NFL Network who host the nationally televised Patriots games this year (three for NBC, one for ESPN, and one for the NFL Network), could be hurt if ratings don't hit the mark the networks have guaranteed to advertisers. "You're kind of screwed if you're NBC or ESPN sitting on a national broadcast right now," says Gentile. "If the ratings are mediocre without Brady, then you're going to get hurt."
ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen all but echoed those thoughts on Monday in a segment during SportsCenter lamenting the prospects of a Brady-less season. "This is bad for the league, it's bad for the networks, it's bad for ESPN."
As for CBS, it looks like Brett Favre might just be their knight in shining armor. Having Favre play for the Jets, an AFC division rival of the Patriots, in New York, the biggest market in the country, could go a long way toward filling the ratings void. "Favre is the story in the NFL this year. Having him in New York will have a bigger impact than Brady's injury, no question," says Neal Pilson, who was president of CBS Sports from 1981 to 1994 and now runs his own independent sports-television consulting company, Pilson Communications. With 7.4 million homes, New York is more than double the market-size of Boston "That's a lot more homes," says Gentille. "If you can increase your New York market ratings by a decent percentage from last year, you can easily make up for the loss you might feel from Brady in Boston."
The shift of emphasis from Brady and the Patriots to Favre and the Jets was already in the works before Brady went down. On Sunday, CBS sent its top broadcasting tandem of Phil Simms and Jim Nantz, its A-Team so to speak, down to Miami to cover Favre's Jets debut against the Miami Dolphins, choosing that game as their national telecast and showing it in 40 percent of the country as opposed to just 11 percent for the Patriots-Chiefs game. Favre did not disappoint. The Jets won, and he threw for two touchdowns while displaying flashes of his improvisational play that's become a hallmark of his 16-year career. If he and the Jets keep that up, and New Yorkers tune in to watch old-man Favre lead the Gang Green to a successful season and possible play-off push, fans, networks and advertisers will have a much easier time forgetting about Boston's Golden Boy.