How ESPN Ruined Monday Night Football

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.

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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.’’

1970Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1971Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1972Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1973Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1974Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fred Williamson
1975Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Alex Karras
1976Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Alex Karras
1977Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1978Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1979Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton
1980Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton
1981Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton
1982Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton
1983Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, O.J. Simpson
1984Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, O.J. Simpson
1985Frank Gifford, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath
1986Al Michaels, Frank Gifford
1987Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
1988Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
1989Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
1990Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
1991Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
1992Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
1993Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
1994Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann
1995Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann
1996Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann
1997Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lesley Visser
1998Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason, Lesley Visser
1999Al Michaels, Boomer Esiason, Lesley Visser
2000Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Melissa Stark, Eric Dickerson
2001Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Melissa Stark, Eric Dickerson
2002Al Michaels, John Madden, Melissa Stark
2003Al Michaels, John Madden, Lisa Guerrero
2004Al Michaels, John Madden, Michele Tafoya
2005Al Michaels, John Madden, Michele Tafoya, Sam Ryan *
2006Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Joe Theismann, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
2007Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
2008Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
2009Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
2010Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
2011Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski **
2012Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
2013Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
2014Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
2015Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
2016Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
2017Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
2018Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters