It’s been no secret that ESPN has been generally unhappy with its Monday Night Football product ever since the breakup of Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden back in 2015. That fact isn’t a secret because ESPN makes that unease clear to the audience with every move the broadcast makes. As a viewer, my advice would be to tell everyone involved — from producers to graphics coordinators to broadcasters — to stop trying so very hard and just dial it back a bit, maybe let the game come to you.
But in the high-stakes world of NFL TV, where each network lives in perpetual fear of displeasing The Shield and, presumably, falling off the face of the earth, there is no such thing is dialing it back a bit. The dial only turns the volume up.
And so, after losing out on the Tony Romo sweepstakes, the Worldwide Leader has a new strategy to “fix” the 50-year-old television institution that has become the clear No. 5 of the NFL’s five big television windows.
According to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post, ESPN wants to acquire Al Michaels away from NBC to once again helm the ship. Michaels served as the MNF play-by-play guy from 1986-2005 before he was traded for the rights to the cartoon character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (seriously), which accompanied a sea change in the NFL’s TV pecking order. NBC’s Sunday Night Football became the NFL’s top TV window, MNF left ABC for ESPN, and NBC replaced ABC in the Super Bowl rotation.
Sunday Night Football is annually one of the five highest-rated shows in all of TV; SNF finished No. 1 in the TV season that ran from Sept. 2018 through May 2019, the most recent on record.
Michaels is under contract through the next two NFL seasons, which coincides with an NBC-owned Super Bowl in Michaels’ home of Los Angeles.
“Al is under contract for the foreseeable future,” NBC spokesman Greg Hughes told the Post.
For all those reasons, it makes all the sense in the world for Michaels to remain with NBC, especially considering he’s worked with the same behind-the-scenes crew since leaving ABC for NBC back in 2006. NBC acquired Mike Tirico from ESPN in 2016 with the eye of replacing Michaels at some point in the future, but now half-a-decade later it’s unclear when the 75-year-old Michaels will hang up his headset.
But Marchand’s report indicates how desperate ESPN is to shake up its struggling MNF franchise, despite the fact MNF ratings were up in 2019.
Acquiring the venerable Michaels, ESPN’s thinking goes, would be just the carrot for Peyton Manning to finally give in and make his part-time relationship with the Worldwide Leader official after turning them down umpteen times before. ESPN was prepared to offer Romo a 10-year, $140 million contract to leave CBS, and the network would surely match or top that for Manning. Marchand writes ESPN has also spitballed the idea of pairing Manning with a co-analyst he likes, perhaps former Colts center Jeff Saturday, who’s already on ESPN’s payroll.
It’s clear that ESPN isn’t happy with it’s “Seriously, Jets and Bengals again?” slot in the NFL’s national TV pecking order. It isn’t happy with only getting the Saturday afternoon Wild Card game on its air — “Seriously, the Texans again?”. And it can take or leave Tess and Boog.
What comes next is anyone’s guess, but ESPN isn’t going to stop trying.