For 'Sunday NFL Countdown,' camaraderie, host Samantha Ponder steer show to best viewership in years

NFL pregame shows have been a staple of preparing fans for football weekends for nearly six decades, and while the content may fluctuate between the heavy-handed to the mundane to the serious, the purpose of the shows cannot be overstated, whether viewers agree on what they are being told or not.

"Sunday NFL Countdown" on ESPN has been on the air in some iteration since 1985, starting with legendary broadcaster Chris Berman taking the reins as the host. The network hasn’t broadcast games on Sunday since 2005 when NBC took over the Sunday night package. So the lead-up to the 1 p.m. ET games has to look and feel different than their counterparts on FOX and CBS, which spend one hour each with the pregame shows.

Based at the South Street Seaport Pier 17 complex in lower Manhattan, overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, "Sunday NFL Countdown" has three hours of information, analysis, and features with discussion on the week’s top games and storylines.

The current crew -- host Samantha Ponder, with Pro Football Hall of Famer Randy Moss, former players Matt Hasselbeck and Tedy Bruschi, and former coach Rex Ryan as analysts, plus insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen -- are completing their fourth season together and by all metrics, the 2022 campaign was the most successful.

Viewership in key demographics, such as 18- to 24-year-olds, was up 13%, female viewership is up 8% and the telecast averaged 1.24 million viewers per show, the most since 2019.

Seth Markman, vice president of production for ESPN, said it’s important to keep the current group together as long as possible for those reasons.

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Mainstays such as "FOX NFL Sunday," "Inside the NBA" and ESPN’s own "College GameDay" are some examples of having rare talent turnover that leads to outstanding, award-winning television.

"It's massively important and we've made it a priority over the last couple of years. We had too many years where we turned it over," Markman, who supervises all college football and NFL studio shows for ESPN, told USA TODAY Sports. "I think we lost sight a little bit at times of how important it is to the audience to connect to a group on TV, and that it can become a little bit of comfort food for people if you will."

From left (clockwise), Matt Hasselbeck, Randy Moss, Rex Ryan, Samantha Ponder and Tedy Bruschi on the set of Sunday NFL Countdown at the South Street Seaport Pier 17 Studio.
From left (clockwise), Matt Hasselbeck, Randy Moss, Rex Ryan, Samantha Ponder and Tedy Bruschi on the set of Sunday NFL Countdown at the South Street Seaport Pier 17 Studio.

For the time being, Markman is getting his wish of togetherness as Ponder, Moss, Hasselbeck and Bruschi each signed contract extensions with ESPN last summer.

While the NFL name is part of the show’s title and the network pays billions to broadcast "Monday Night Football," the league is mostly hands-off when it comes to topics or the conduct of the hosts.

"For us, we want to talk about everything that's going on in the field. There's nothing off-limits. But taking personal shots at guys, that's where we step in at times and say we want to be above that," Markman said.

Markman did say the league was curious about how the show would handle topics surrounding Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who missed six games this season after being concussed twice, and is still in the protocol after his latest head injury.

"The only thing they offer at times is resources or observation, or say, 'Would it be helpful if we made one of our doctors available to talk to your group? Or would it be helpful if Troy Vincent talked to your group just so you have all the information?'" Markman said.

NFL Countdown 'not really a hot take show'

With former players permeating television sets across all networks, criticism of former or current colleagues may play a factor in what can be perceived as "hot takes" or even delve into the area of authenticity.

For Bruschi and Hasselback, they have no such problem telling it like it is.

Bruschi played his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots, and because of the success they have had this century, they're often the topic of conversation during these shows.

"I think I was more worried about that early in my career," Bruschi said. "I think I progressed as an analyst to where I’m comfortable now being critical of or picking against the Patriots. Even Jeff Saturday, who I worked with a little bit, and being critical of him and the year the Colts had, wasn't a problem with me. This is who I am and this is my opinion. And I'm just proud that I'm just going to give it."

Hasselbeck, a 17-year NFL player, admits he was still trying to play football when Markman was trying to pry him out of his cleats to become an analyst. But his brother, Tim, was on staff at the network and knew part of any television job was talking about players who were competitors and possibly friends, and those relationships could be fractured.

Being a fan of ESPN was also part of the appeal.

"I was probably the last person in my family in my town to ever have cable. But for whatever reason, it didn't leave ESPN. It just didn't leave the channel," Hasselbeck said.

ESPN NFL analysts Randy Moss (left) and Matt Hasselbeck look on during pregame for the 2019 NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium.
ESPN NFL analysts Randy Moss (left) and Matt Hasselbeck look on during pregame for the 2019 NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium.

But one thing Hasselbeck makes clear is what the show is not.

"We're not really a hot take show. You try to enlighten people. Now the big thing and some shows, you try to enrage people one way or the other and that drives (what goes) viral. It’s something that's not really our thing. The way I look at it is we try to give our audience a ticket to something they could never buy a ticket to. That's what I've tried to do," Hasselbeck said.

It is obvious the talent gets along and that’s part of the appeal of the show. But that camaraderie was tested early during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

"Us watching games together, sharing meals together during that COVID year was really important," Bruschi said. "But I think over the first two years, getting the course of knowing each other and getting comfortable with each other was valuable."

While spending that valuable time together, it gave the crew a chance to build the chemistry that is rare in the television industry and to collect data on each other just in case it was time to laugh. It could be Rex Ryan’s affinity for wearing the same jumpsuit all weekend, Bruschi’s love of croissants, or Moss’s addiction to sweets, as he will refuse to eat any yellow and green candy and graciously hand those to Ponder.

Samantha Ponder takes 'no mess'

The role as the first and last stop for maintaining a cohesive crew and some order between distinctive personalities belongs to Ponder.

Her co-hosts admit they wouldn’t know what the show would be like without the 37-year-old Ponder, who is one of a handful of women hosting a pregame NFL show.

Markman credits her ability to steer the show with incredible ease while Bruschi and Hasselbeck commend Ponder for not taking any "mess" from them if topics or conversations get out of hand or have the potential of going viral for the wrong reasons.

Ponder's "take no mess" personality comes from her father and two brothers, while growing up in Arizona, where she spent weekends watching Ahmad Rashad on "Inside Stuff".

Samantha Ponder on the set of ESPN College Gameday before the game between Alabama and Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in 2012.
Samantha Ponder on the set of ESPN College Gameday before the game between Alabama and Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in 2012.

Ponder has a unique viewpoint as a host, first being a college sports sideline reporter for a decade and also as the wife of a former first-round NFL quarterback, Christian Ponder, who spent six seasons in the league.

That's especially true when news about Tagovailoa or Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who suffered a cardiac arrest on the field earlier this month in a Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals, jump from the sports page to the front page.

"The job gives me perspective, and you’re able to see more of the big picture," Ponder said. "I know what it was like in my house every Monday morning when my husband was waking up and having a hard time getting back to bed. When you see it up close, it’s different. That doesn’t make me special because he was in the NFL. Someone who is married to a dentist is going to have a different appreciation for teeth. It impacts the way you see the world through that lens."

Ponder says being a woman in her position sometimes is a heavy burden, because so many people look up to her, while others are waiting for her to fail.

"People are watching me and looking to see what this path is like," said Ponder, who is also a mother of three children. "I did the same thing when I was a young girl when I decided in third grade this is what I wanted to do."

For now, Ponder has no plans of doing anything else and says she doesn’t like to think about what’s next.

She learned that lesson when she found out she was pregnant with her second child and a week later her agent asked about her interest in "Countdown.”"

"There are things I would like to do, but right now I am grateful I get to be a full-time mom," Ponder said. "I never thought I would be here in the first place. But all I know is we are having a lot of fun and it feels like hanging out with friends on the show."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Sunday NFL Countdown' camaraderie leads to rising viewership for ESPN