I have never watched Monday Night Football (MNF) because of the broadcast team. Never tuned out because of the MNF broadcast team either. I honestly could care less who is in the booth but it is interesting to watch ESPN go through this process of figuring out who the new broadcast team will be. Who they pick will be equally interesting.
Growing up in the 1980s, MNF was unique. It was the only broadcast that was not on Sunday afternoon. There was the early slate of Sunday games starting at noon eastern and the late games starting around 3:30 eastern. Leaving the only outlier as MNF.
Now, the National Football League (NFL) was watered this uniqueness down in a fight for relevance that is diluting the product. If you can’t tell, too much and many broadcasts for my tastes. They added the very popular Sunday night game, Sunday Night Football (SNF), which I would maintain. I think that has done well based mostly on the extension of the single day fervor. Also the match ups have been pretty marquee; ironically shifting what used to be on MNF to SNF.
Also the NFL added the Thursday night game. I am wholly opposed to that addition. It used to wreak havoc on my fantasy team. Usually it isn’t a good match up. It does offer all the team more options to be in prime time, a problem for repeatedly bad franchises like the Cleveland Browns or Jacksonville Jaguars. Also, it takes focus from NCAA matchups on Thursday, which have routinely had top 25 and sometimes top 10 teams playing. Either way, season ticket holders are almost obligated to take a Friday off for an opportunity to, what? I can’t think of any Thursday night match of distinction. Unlike the modern day slugfest of the Kansas City Chiefs vs Los Angeles Rams on Monday 19 November 2018 . This was a scrum of the eventual NFC Champs vs the AFC Runner Ups in a 105 point scoring-fest that had some truly excellent defense plays along the way. I can’t remember any such highlights from Thursday games.
In my perfect world, Sunday would be the only day for professional football. Noon (slate), 3:30 (slate) and 8 (single primetime) [using eastern start times]. I think it is best for fantasy, the best way to both keep the football audience fully engaged along with continuing to expand the audience. Also now the internet and wifi and other advantages gives fans lots of options to take in information about the games.
This one day for pros focuses everyone in a principle I call “captive audience”. Same reason the NFL shoved a third game onto Thanksgiving, there is a “captive audience” of the family that is off work and enjoys turkey/tofurkey and cranberry, out of can. The NBA does this with Xmas, I think they try to cram in like 5 games now. I might need to do a post about my“captive audience” hypothesis. But either way, Sunday only football would be my wish. Plus, I think it gives the majority of fans time to see at least a half of football to increase those ad venue dollars, since most football fans have some portion of Sunday off regularly.
Back to what I am here for: MNF. Howard Cosell was the broadcaster that gave the game its signature. His trademark voice was the anchor through a changing group of color commentators. Running the play by play for the opening stint of popularity.
After Cosell, ABC then ESPN took some chances. O.J. Simpson, yep he got a few years. A bunch of former players tried to catch the magic. One limb that was of skeptical effectiveness was Dennis Miller. His commentary was informative. But instead of watching the game, some viewers had their noses in a dictionary trying to make sense of Miller’s erudite vocabulary.
Now, ESPN wants to find magic since it is part of Disney. I think they are going to have to make some magic first and not a lot of eye of newt to be found. For now, they are going to lean on the fading uniqueness of the last game of the week.
I do think the best team in the NFL, not just ESPN, could get would be to move CBS’ primary team of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo to ESPN. This is not the NFL’s call though at least not until it is time to bid on broadcasting rights again. ESPN made a serious play for Tony Romo but CBS countered with a hefty salary bump. And even with ESPN’s vast coverage; Nantz’s voice is integral to other CBS staples like March Madness and the Masters. All in all, they are my favorite but too big a “get”.
ESPN was trying to make more substantive moves too. Trying to get either Al Michaels and Peyton Manning as a team to anchor MNF. Michaels is a seasoned, and only, professional that anchors the hugely popular SNF. I guess you can see the wildcard is Peyton. But he has demonstrated he is knowledgeable on the field and off. Peyton has shown he is funny having hosted shows like Saturday Night Live and the ESPYs. I personally think he would do a good job in the booth.
However Peyton seems focused on other things. Even though, during an episode of Peyton’s Places; Manning and Al Michaels donned the golden MNF jackets and did a mock broadcast just to tantalize us all. That is not in the cards this year though maybe there is hope for the future?
Plus anything that would get Cris Collinsworth out of the booth would be a great move. I am not at all a fan of Collinsworth. I don’t think he is a bad guy, just a bad broadcaster. I really wish we could see a better team for SNF too. But that would be another issue, huh? OK, let us get back on course.
There was talk of trying to lure Mike Tirico back to ESPN as well. He would be an interesting play-by-play professional to build around. But once again, his current situation is pretty good with NBC. Tirico gets a lot of lee-way to work on a variety of sports that he might have to limit if MNF is his focus at least for almost half of the year.
One name that wasn’t mentioned but might work is Eli Manning. Peyton’s little brother doesn’t have as much charisma up front. But he is plenty entertaining in commercials and his own Saturday Night Live appearance. And he has gone through an entire career in the dreaded “New York media” (which I am pretty sure has no effect anymore). Why not give him a shot with a short term deal? Or maybe even third mike?
Other names were floated. One I would really enjoy, even if as a third mic is Pat McAfee. During the quarantine, I have tuned into his show more on YouTube. The first hour is his radio show and he is expanding it with A.J. Hawk on for a second hour. I think his takes would add a lot. He has a ton of charisma. I don’t think ESPN will take that chance though.
Now with the coronavirus, ESPN is more worried about money and rightfully so. As such they are not looking outside the company for their MNF broadcast team. That is going to be interesting. But there are plenty of options even with “the mothership”.
One of the first names on people’s lips was Kirk Herbstreit. Kirk has been fantastic “doing the double” of College Gameday and the Saturday night primetime game. But his expertise ends at college just like his playing career did. He has no professional experience on the field. No snaps in the NFL. No snaps in the USFL. No snaps in the CFL. That is fine for play-by-play but a color commentator needs to be a former player or coach at that level. I like Kirk but he is missing that on his resume.
One name that doesn’t come up but is in company already is, Greg McElroy. He is already a color commentator for college football on the SEC Network. He also has a show called Thinking Out Loud with Marcus Spears on SEC Network. He was a national champ at Alabama. He also played a few years in the NFL. Since, he has been building a career as a broadcaster.
McElroy’s career took a step towards the pro ranks during the XFL COVID-shortened season. With the need for in game analysts, he lent his voice to the ABC Sports team with himself and Steve Levy who would be a great addition to the MNF team.
I liked the XFL coverage a lot more than NFL coverage. Getting direct access was interesting. It is hard to get good sound bites when the players are panting after a great play. But when they are a bit more composed, you get a lot of insight. And sometimes even sour grapes. (P.S. That is Levy and McElroy on the call).
Also, I thought Greg McElroy was informative in the booth. He was anticipating calls muc like Tony Romo. Explaining play names and the response. I thought, “If young players are listening, they are getting an education.”
If they want to try something special, they would include Greg’s Thinking Out Loud co-host Marcus Spears. Even if he isn’t in the booth the whole time, having his occasional insight would be interesting. Zoom Call-in? McElroy and Spears’ coverage of the 2019 National SemiFinal and Final was the best MegaCast outside of the Coaches Cast. The guys got to have some fun calling both the Semi-Final at the Orange Bowl between Alabama beating Oklahoma and then the National Championship of Clemson beating Alabama. It was very personable even if sometimes they got off topic debating things like their favorite type of potato. Though I enjoyed it thoroughly, many will attack them for it.
Honestly though, ESPN shouldn’t worry about that. If they are complaining, it means they are watching and listening. They could even go revolutionary and change crews every few games. That is effectively what happens on Thursday Nights. Since Fox and CBS alternate crews, except for the opening game, it is someone’s top crew depending on the broadcaster. And during the baseball playoffs, Troy Aikman might end up working with someone other than Joe Buck for play-by-play.
For the first MNF this season, there is a doubleheader. This has been the tradition since 2006 when the games moved from ABC to ESPN. The crew for the first game will be the crew for the 2020 season, the commentator team will feature Steve Levy on play-by-play with Brian Griese and Louis Riddick as analysts. The second game will be crewed by the ESPN primetime college crew Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. Since no college games are scheduled until later in September, they are free to move up to the big boys.
Might there be a MNF MegaCast? With Hockey and Basketball extending their seasons; both will be finishing as football is starting. Baseball is a mess right now but may make it to a Florida & Arizona “bubble” playoff. Could more casts be on order for ESPN’s marquee game?
And don’t be surprised to see things change if the Big 12, ACC and SEC also postpone their seasons. Without Big Ten or PAC 12; there are going to be less games. Who knows about bowls. But if they all go, there might be NFL Saturday games? That would, once again, mess with the season ticket holders. But, as is, fans are going to get screwed anyway. The only game that will have some fans, so far, is the Texans vs the Chiefs at Arrowhead. But the crowd will be capped at a ceiling of 22% of capacity for around 16,000 fans. Paltry sum for the Super Bowl champs. And since I live in KCMO, I know that the fervor for the team will be much larger. And if they don’t limit tailgating; that will be a party outside of Arrowhead.
Still my vote would be Steve Levy play-by-play and Greg McElroy as color commentator for the MNF crew.