The NFL is just about the only league fans can discuss in a definite future tense. While there are some forecasts out there that the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent measures to combat it could stretch into late summer and fall, it’s far enough in the distance that football season still feels safe to talk about as if it will be unaffected.
Free agency went off at the normal time, though without some of the press conference/fanfare. The combine went as scheduled (though obviously a lot of Pro Days were canceled), and though the draft won’t be the normal, overwrought, normal life-destroying production for what is essentially a conference call and a reading of a list of names, fans will still get that list of names read at the usual time.
Along with that, the maneuvers and changes with the broadcasting of NFL games remains at its usual pace. After all, as the NFL is basically a TV product, it’s vital to a lot of people. With that, news broke yesterday that Peyton Manning had once again turned down ESPN to be their analyst for Monday Night Football.
ESPN was reportedly offering the bag, now known as “Romo Money.” But no matter who they chase and what they offer, ESPN is chasing something they can’t have and never will. And that’s making Monday Night Football appointment television again. It simply won’t happen.
Some will say MNF died when it moved to cable, but considering what the TV landscape looks like now, that doesn’t hold true anymore. What did kill it is when NBC took the Sunday Night package of games off of cable and made it the premier game of the week. Without that, Monday NIght Football has gone from must-see TV to an annoyance to the fans of teams playing that night, as they have to wait to watch their team, and “Well I’m not doing anything else” viewing to just about everyone else. Still, most every other network in the world would love to have Monday night programming that averaged over 12 million viewers last year. It just pales in comparison to the 23 million or so that NBC pulls in.
This is why ESPN has tried all sorts of gimmicks to make Monday Night the epicenter of the NFL week. You may remember Dennis Miller before NBC euthanized MNF as the primetime game to watch, and nearly ended with Al Michaels bludgeoning Miller on air as the comedian compared his murder to the Defenestration of Prague (Beano).
The Booger Mobile was another attempt to fool people into thinking ESPN was doing something truly original with its coverage instead of blocking fans’ views and risking frostbite for Ol’ Boog.
Pulling Jason Witten straight from the field to stare blankly at the screen in front of him and utter words that would construct a complete sentence, if they came in the right order, was billed as a coup, mostly by ESPN itself.
You may have forgotten the WWL trying to capitalize on the popularity of “Pardon The Interruption” by importing Tony Kornheiser into the booth, giving everyone the experience of their dour, angry, and obtuse uncle at Thanksgiving 16 times a season.
All of it was to make MNF the epicenter again, but you can’t do that without the core of what people want: A game they want to watch. Sure, MNF landed on the Chiefs-Rams Smash TV simulation from 2018. But that kind of event is overwhelmed by the frequent Dolphins-Steelers or Bears-Washington of just this past year. And after the hype and actual game on Sunday night, generally the most important of the week, Monday Night feels like a cooldown match. It plays you out as you exit the building and head off into your week.
The most recent chase of Manning is clearly to echo CBS re-signing Tony Romo, as well as make up for ESPN’s failed attempt to lure him to Monday night. But how Romo’s overblown analysis and random noises that sound like he’s being poked by medical equipment going where it’s not supposed to go would improve a Jaguars-Chargers tilt is a mystery.
ESPN is hardly the only sports broadcaster to think simply a name will give its broadcast more luster, but it feels like fans have moved on from that for a while now. There’s no indication that Manning would be any good at the job, other than his appearances on commercials where he gets as many cracks and takes as he needs. That’s not the case for a live game.
NBC seems to be the exception to this, as with their hockey coverage they’re moving more and more to guys who can just do the job instead of names who can yell. Pierre McGuire has been replaced on their top team by Brian Boucher. Patrick Sharp is taking more of Mike Milbury’s studio time, along with other recently retired players who can actually point out something the normal viewer wouldn’t see instead of grunt and threaten to punch someone or himself.
This mirrors NBC’s Premier League coverage, where Robbie Earle, Robbie Mustoe, and Kyle Martino simply analyze what’s in front of them in a level-headed, studious manner. Considering the gains those ratings have made through the years, it appears viewers respond positively to that.
While TNT’s studio NBA show can quickly become Vaudevillian, there was a time when Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley could break down a game better than just about anyone else. Their game-coverage still retains that talk-like-an-adult vibe, contrasted with ESPN’s constant grab-ass for every sport it covers.
ESPN would do well to recognize what MNF is permanently now, and simply work within those confines. A big name in the booth isn’t going to make the games any better, but better broadcasters might. Mike Tirico and Sean McDonough in the past were at least nods to being grown-up, while Joe Tessitore sounds like he’s trying to make everything into a superplex.
Unless ESPN finds a way to pick some of the top-choice games off of NBC or Fox or CBS, this is what it is. A sober and calm broadcast of these games would probably do ESPN more good than just throwing the latest big or out-of-the-box name at it, whose charm then runs out in Week 3. They’ve certainly groomed enough announcers with its blanket college football coverage to slide effortlessly to the pro ranks. All that glitters isn’t gold and all that.