ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ waiting game gives NFL added buzz
Roger Goodell’s NFL gets a lot wrong, and I suspect no full rehash of the commissioner’s blunders is necessary to gain your agreement.
One of the things the NFL manages to get right — and seems to master more with each passing year — is building anticipation for the coming season, and it begins almost as soon as the confetti is swept up from the previous season’s conclusion.
Major League Baseball, which begins its regular season in two weeks, would do just about anything for the kind of buzz that the NFL has right now, in the eye of its free-agency storm and with interest in its April draft building by the day.
The NFL has mastered the savvy marketing skills required to capture our year-round attention, even when its next meaningful games are still slightly less than six months away.
Nowadays, we don’t just look forward to the next season months in advance; we even actually care about who will be calling those games from the broadcast booth, especially when change is certain.
There’s an intriguing kind of waiting game going on right now to learn what ESPN will do with its “Monday Night Football” booth this season after Jason Witten’s decision last month to return, after a one-year hiatus, to the Dallas Cowboys for a 16th NFL season rather than spend a second year in the broadcast booth.
By all accounts, Witten’s decision stunned ESPN executives, who stood behind him during a rocky rookie reason alongside play-by-play voice Joe Tessitore, with fellow analyst Booger McFarlane stationed on a gimmicky vehicle along the sideline.
There is much curiosity to learn how ESPN plans to replace Witten – who, let’s admit, should be easy to replace. Among NFL stars-turned-broadcasters, he was the most miscast on television since ESPN gave Emmitt Smith, a master of the malaprop, a two-year run on its studio programming (2007-08).
It is not difficult to find betting odds on the likelihood of certain candidates replacing Witten. Among the favorites are the same names that popped up a year ago when ESPN was holding auditions for the role in its revamped booth after Jon Gruden returned to the NFL and Sean McDonough moved back to college football.
They include legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, slightly less legendary quarterback Kurt Warner, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, and among those with longer odds, ESPN analyst and legendary receiver Randy Moss.
Manning is the dream hire for any network, and would probably command an eight-figure salary. (John Madden, who made a reported $8 million per year late in his career, is believed to be the highest-paid NFL color analyst of all time, and will remain so until Manning takes a gig or CBS’s Tony Romo is a free agent.) But beyond doing occasional player breakdowns for the “Detail” program on ESPN-plus and pitching for any product for which the check clears, Manning hasn’t given any indication he desires an analyst role.
Warner, believed to be the runner-up to Witten last year, would be an excellent choice. He has an easy-going manner on the air — he joins Kevin Harlan on Westwood One’s superior MNF radio broadcasts — and has the quarterback’s knack for identifying what’s going to happen before it does.
Olsen, the Panthers tight end, auditioned for “Monday Night Football” last year and got rave reviews from ESPN execs. He also called a game for Fox during the Panthers’ bye week in 2017 and did well. But it would be bold of ESPN to hire another fresh-off-the-field tight end after the Witten experience.
Riddick, who is already part of ESPN’s MNF studio show, is fantastic in that role. While I believe he would be a great fit in the booth, it would be a loss to have him no longer a part of ESPN’s various NFL studio programs. He is an Emmy-caliber talent in the role he is already in.
It wasn’t until May last year that ESPN revealed its broadcast team of Tessitore, McFarlane, and Witten. It would be a surprise if it happens sooner this year, for a couple of reasons:
1. From what I hear, ESPN isn’t currently inclined to add a third voice to the booth, instead moving McFarlane – who did a good job in an unforgiving role last year — from the sideline to the booth to pair with Tessitore.
2. That is hardly the solution most NFL fans are waiting for in the MNF booth. So ESPN might as well wait as long as possible to reveal its plans for next season. The current buzz is good for business, even if the ultimate outcome is unfulfilling.
Back to brackets
Speaking of one-and-dones, CBS Sports and Turner have corrected a wrong, switching its March Madness Selection Show back to the tried-and-true format it used for years before last March.
Last year, the networks, who partner on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, moved the program from CBS, which had been its home for the previous 36 years, to TBS. It also doubled the length of the show to two hours, and in a decision that no one outside of a Turner boardroom seemed to like, revealed the teams in the tournament alphabetically rather than unveiling the bracket and seedings region by region.
The backlash was loud and prolonged, and the networks listened. Sunday, the show will air on CBS at 6 p.m. It will last one hour, brackets will be revealed early in the program, and a good thing is back to the way it should be.