On September 21, 1970, the ABC television network first aired Monday Night Football in primetime, and it was an immediate hit — capturing over 30% of the entire US TV audience, and would remain a top 20 primetime program for decades. That is, until ESPN ruined it.
In 2006 when the MNF contract was up for renewal, ESPN grossly overpaid the NFL while giving up the right to feature the best games, and replaced popular veteran announcers like Al Michaels and John Madden with lesser known anchors from Sportscenter.
The Worst Games
ESPN pays almost $2 billion per year to air just one game a week — Monday Night Football. To say they overpaid is an understatement — they didn’t even get a Super Bowl as part of this package. It’s nearly twice what NBC pays to air Sunday Night Football.
When ESPN closed this billion dollar deal some of its top executives believed they were buying the schedule of the previous Monday Night Football package — which usually featured one of the top games of the week. But NBC cunningly negotiated this feature away.
Sunday Night Football became the NFL’s premier prime-time package, giving it the best games and the right to steal the best matchups from Fox and CBS. ESPN basically gets the leftovers, and it’s unfortunate because not only is it their loss, it’s ours too — because Monday nights aren’t as fun as they used to be.
How did this happen? Well, in part because the relationship between the NFL and ESPN has been rocky over the years. ESPN considers itself a journalistic enterprise and many of their journalists have been — and continue to be — critical of the NFL, particularly on the concussion issue. I champion journalistic voices not only in sports, but in government, politics and business. But in the world of sports entertainment it’s risky to criticize an organization (The NFL) who controls the most popular live content on the planet.
The options for where the NFL can sell their content is growing daily — and at the end of the day – ESPN is just another cable network — another platform in a sea of platforms eager for content. In an effort to take a positive step in building a better relationship, ESPN basically took whatever the NFL was offering while negotiating the MNF contract.
In Broadcast vs. Cable, Broadcast usually wins
NBC’s Sunday Night Football has been the #1 ranked show in all of TV for nine straight years. When ABC aired Monday Night Football — even as the network struggled with ratings overall — it was a perennial Top 10 primetime program. During the 2017 regular season, ESPN’s Monday night games averaged a record-low 10.8 million viewers, according to SBD. That was down 6 percent from the previous season.
There are bigger trends at work here — all TV ratings are trending downward. People are cutting their cable cords, buying antennas, and subscribing to more streaming services. There are simply more options than ever when it comes to entertaining ourselves.
Monday Night Football also changed platforms, moving from the ABC broadcast network — available to pretty much every household in America for free with an antenna — to ESPN — a cable network requiring a subscription to access their content. This drastically reduced distribution and availability to millions of viewers — now you have to pay to watch MNF.
NBC built a franchise for Sunday Night Football out of thin air and created the #1 program in all of primetime. I attribute that partly to the undervalued power and distribution of broadcast television. Also NBC is brilliant at promotion, and production, and they understand primetime games deserve primetime talent.
A Lack of Star Power
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle’s idea behind MNF was to promote football to the masses, and to make it even more interesting they added star power to the announcing booth. When MNF debuted in 1970 it showcased the popular personalities of Howard Cossell, Keith Jackson and Don Meredith. ESPN’s latest lineup features Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, Booger McFarland, and sideline reporter Lisa Salters. If you are a casual fan of the NFL and don’t watch Sportscenter or ESPN religiously, it’s likely you’ve never heard of these people.
Below is a list of MNF announcers over the years and pay attention to who ESPN put in the booth in their debut year — a wonderful but mild Mike Tirico alongside a very good Joe Theisman alongside Washington Post Sports Columnist Tony Kornheiser. We went from Al Michaels and Jon Madden, superstars of football broadcasting, to a Sportscenter anchor and a newspaper columnist. They are all wonderfully talented professionals, but ESPN took the fun out of Monday Night Football and turned it into a nerd fest of jock talk.
As Don Meredith famously said in the show’s heyday, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.’’
|1970||Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith|
|1971||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith|
|1972||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith|
|1973||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith|
|1974||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fred Williamson|
|1975||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Alex Karras|
|1976||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Alex Karras|
|1977||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith|
|1978||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith|
|1979||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton|
|1980||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton|
|1981||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton|
|1982||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton|
|1983||Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, O.J. Simpson|
|1984||Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, O.J. Simpson|
|1985||Frank Gifford, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath|
|1986||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford|
|1987||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf|
|1988||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf|
|1989||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf|
|1990||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf|
|1991||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf|
|1992||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf|
|1993||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf|
|1994||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann|
|1995||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann|
|1996||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann|
|1997||Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lesley Visser|
|1998||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason, Lesley Visser|
|1999||Al Michaels, Boomer Esiason, Lesley Visser|
|2000||Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Melissa Stark, Eric Dickerson|
|2001||Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Melissa Stark, Eric Dickerson|
|2002||Al Michaels, John Madden, Melissa Stark|
|2003||Al Michaels, John Madden, Lisa Guerrero|
|2004||Al Michaels, John Madden, Michele Tafoya|
|2005||Al Michaels, John Madden, Michele Tafoya, Sam Ryan *|
|2006||Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Joe Theismann, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya|
|2007||Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya|
|2008||Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya|
|2009||Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya|
|2010||Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya|
|2011||Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski **|
|2012||Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters|
|2013||Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters|
|2014||Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters|
|2015||Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters|
|2016||Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters|
|2017||Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters|
|2018||Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters|