Monday Night Football on ESPN hit an all-time-low average viewership last season, at 10.8 million viewers. It was the fourth consecutive season that average viewership declined.
ESPN and the NFL are desperate for things to turn around. Prime-time ratings for Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football were way down last season as well, but ESPN can only control its one night. ESPN has shown Monday Night Football since 2006.
ESPN and the NFL have a lot in common in 2018: both, for varying reasons, have become political lightning rods amidst the ongoing player protests started by Colin Kaepernick and angry tweets from President Donald Trump. The NFL was already facing serious macro shifts in live sports viewership habits before Kaepernick kneeled and before Trump tweeted. ESPN executives and employees are sick to death of a pervasive narrative among conservatives that the network has a liberal agenda. The network and the league would both like to move on and get football fans to focus on football.
On the other hand, the relationship between the two is reportedly the worst it has ever been, due to a conflict that was always there, but has grown louder. ESPN is a broadcast partner of the NFL and pays $2 billion per year to show its games; it is also a journalistic enterprise that has recently reported some of the most negative scoops about the league. NFL executives, according to Sports Business Journal, felt that a slew of ESPN stories last football season “went out of their way to portray the NFL in a bad light.”
The relationship is so rocky that some media pundits think ESPN might not renew its deal for the Monday Night Football rights when the package expires in 2021.
ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, who took the job in April, is determined to fix it.
“The relationship is incredibly important to us,” Pitaro told reporters at ESPN’s “Football Media Day” on Aug. 17 at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. “We’ve made that very clear to the NFL, that the relationship is important. And we see momentum there… I’ve known the league executives for many years, for over a decade, and I have a good sense of where the relationship stands, and it’s moving in the right direction.” Pitaro also noted that ESPN feels satisfied it has a better slate of games this year.
To hit refresh, ESPN has a completely new MNF broadcast team: former college football announcer Joe Tessitore doing the play-by-play; freshly retired Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten as color commentator; two-time Super Bowl champion defensive tackle Booger McFarland as field analyst; and sideline reporter Lisa Salters, the only one not new to the MNF broadcast.
At its media day in August, ESPN trotted out the new MNF crew on the day after the foursome made their debut during a Thursday night preseason game. The general tone of their comments: Make Monday Night Football fun again.
‘They want non-corporate, they want raw’
Tessitore has been with ESPN since 2002. He’s best known by sports fans as a college football announcer or as the ringside commentator for Top Rank Boxing. His style is loose and personal, and as far from the buttoned-up delivery of Al Michaels as possible. That’s why he makes sense as ESPN attempts an MNF turnaround.
In an interview with Yahoo Finance about his goals for the new MNF broadcast, Tessitore invokes TNT’s extremely successful “Inside the NBA” program, which throws together Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson Jr. and basically lets them horse around.
“When you’re channel-surfing, and you come across Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith on Inside The NBA,” Tessitore asks, “don’t you stop and at least give them a moment? Do you know what NBA game is actually on that night? No, because it doesn’t friggin’ matter. It’s those personalities being authentically themselves that you’re attracted to and want to watch. On a Saturday when College GameDay is at James Madison [University], you don’t care about James Madison, but you stop and watch because you want to see what Coach Corso is going to do, and you want to hear Herbie and Rece and the banter, right? That’s my vision for Monday Night Football, because that’s what Monday Night Football was built on in the 1970s. It was Cosell and Meredith and Gifford and they beat each other over the head with pots and pans. It had that edge to it.”
Despite the rigid reputation of the NFL (“protect the shield” is commissioner Roger Goodell’s preferred mantra), Tessitore said pro football gives him more freedom than college football did. “I have more autonomy now, I can truly be me,” he said, “because the pro game allows that more. I find it hard to criticize a hardworking student athlete. But these are paid millionaires.” An example he cites: During the broadcast of the Aug. 16 preseason game between the Jets and Redskins, Witten mentioned the leadership that Cleveland Browns receiver Jarvis Landry was exhibiting, documented by the HBO locker room series “Hard Knocks.” Tessitore retorted that he didn’t believe the “22 f-bombs” Landry used was good leadership. “I said that on air, I don’t give a crap,” Tessitore said. “I wouldn’t say that about a college kid. So there’s a freedom to primetime NFL.”
Even the camera shots in the booth are meant to lighten the mood. When they cut to Tessitore and Witten during the first preseason broadcast, it had a behind-the-scenes look, with packing crates and other clutter visible behind the two men. “The theme is you’re eavesdropping on two guys hanging out behind stage,” said Monday Night Football lead producer Jay Rothman.
ESPN has special camera angles for McFarland, too. He sits on the “BoogMobile,” an elevated sideline cart 10 feet above the action that gets driven up and down the sideline for his reports. The seat is so high McFarland has to buckle himself in, and the contraption is significant enough that ESPN president Pitaro cited the BoogMobile in his remarks to reporters at media day as an example of innovation at ESPN. McFarland recently told the New York Post, “A lot of NFL broadcasts are not fun to watch.” The BoogMobile is fun.
As Tessitore sees it, “People want access, they want unfiltered, they want non-corporate, they want raw.”
“Raw” is not at all the first word that comes to mind to describe Witten’s on-air delivery. He is shy and polite, more boy scout than host. But that could work fine as a foil to Tessitore. More importantly, Witten is apolitical and uncontroversial. He was a career-long Dallas Cowboy, “America’s team,” the franchise helmed by Jerry Jones, NFL power broker and friend of Trump and “Papa” John Schnatter. (It is no accident that if you flip over to the other NFL channels, you see two more Cowboys: Tony Romo on CBS and Troy Aikman on Fox.) Witten is someone no one will complain about.
Tessitore says that on the morning after the Aug. 16 preseason game, he called up Alberto Riveron, head of NFL officiating, “to make sure he was comfortable with what we did last night, did we get everything right.” He plans to make that call every week — another relationship-building effort with the league.
Rothman, the producer, evaluated the MNF team this way at the media day: “Joe is a cross between Frank Sinatra and a young Brent Musburger. Jason is Captain America… Booger is football’s Charles Barkley… and Lisa is just a supreme journalist. She’s got our backs.”
In addition to those four in-game faces, ESPN has added NFL front office insider Louis Riddick to the halftime and postgame crew with Suzy Kolber and Steve Young.
‘Give them a reason to care’
Of course, a fun new broadcast team with lighthearted banter and all kinds of new camera angles won’t add up to much if fans simply don’t want to watch games. The NFL is still the biggest draw in live sports, but viewership for all live sports is on the decline.
On any given Monday night, Americans now have more television options and distractions than ever before, from Netflix to Hulu to Amazon Prime to HBO Now. ESPN needs to draw people in and retain them.
Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s senior vice president of studio production, believes storytelling is the answer. “We know at ESPN we’re going to get the hardcore viewer, that’s built in for us,” she said at Media Day. “But by Monday night, are they really as intense as they were during the weekend? You’ve got to give them a reason to care. So it’s super important for us to hammer people over the head with the storylines.”
Tessitore said he is hyper-conscious of retaining an audience. “When we’re heading to commercial break,” he said, “let me give you a reason to keep watching.” His example from the Aug. 16 preseason game was Teddy Bridgewater, the former Minnesota Vikings quarterback who missed the entire 2016 season and most of the 2017 season due to injury and was playing, on that night, for the Jets. (He has since been traded to the Saints.) “It’s been two years since he’s been able to ply his craft,” Tessitore said, “so what will he look like tonight? That’s storytelling.”
Even with so much riding on the new MNF rollout, Tessitore said he, Witten, McFarland and Salters aren’t thinking about ratings. “We have a big weapon in our hands,” he said. “It’s called the NFL. It’s still the biggest cultural entity in America. You can say all you want, it still gets the most eyeballs of anything that we have in American society.”
That is all true. But the NFL is not quite as powerful a weapon as it used to be.