Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday Night Football, as American as Apple Pie

Monday Night Football begins its 38th season tonight featuring a doubleheader. The last two games of the NFL’s opening weekend begins with the Baltimore Ravens visiting the Cincinnati Bengals. That game will be followed up with the Arizona Cardinals traveling to San Francisco to meet the 49’ers. Monday Night Football has been much more than a football game; it’s a true slice of “Americana”. Part “pop culture”, at times historic but more often that not an amazing near four decade showcase representing the evolution between network television and professional sports.

Two years ago Disney secured the long-term broadcast rights for Monday Night Football agreeing to an eight-year $8.8 billion dollar contract with the National Football League. Disney is paying the NFL more in rights fees than Fox, CBS and NBC do for their Sunday network packages – and ESPN’s agreement doesn’t include any Super Bowl games. CBS, Fox and NBC each secured two Super Bowls as part of their current NFL network television agreements. ESPN’s arrangement with the NFL includes 17 Monday night games, a handful of pre-season games and two first round wild-card playoff games.

With the exception of the September 11, 2006 Chargers-Raiders game, Monday Night Football has been the most-watched program on cable until the premier of High School Musical 2 which had 17 million viewers breaking Monday Night Football record of 16 million . According to news services, "ESPN's telecast of the New York Giants' 36-22 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Monday, October 23, 2006 was viewed by more than 16 million viewers, then the largest audience in cable history.

The game, featuring two of the NFL's biggest rivals, was seen in an average of 11,807,000 homes, based on a 12.8 rating. That translated to 16,028,000 viewers (a cable ratings point represents 923,000 households).

The previous record for cable television was the debate over NAFTA in November 1993, between then-vice president Al Gore and Ross Perot, which aired on CNN's Larry King Live.

"We've never believed the acronyms NAFTA and MNF belonged in the same sentence, and we're thrilled to have established MNF as the home of cable's biggest audience ever," said Norby! Williamson, ESPN executive vice president for studio and remote production. "That fans have responded with the record is very rewarding and a vivid reminder of the power of Monday Night Football."

The nine most-watched programs in ESPN history (as well as being 9 of the top 10 most-watched programs ever on cable, excluding breaking news) are:

The October 23 game between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys (16.028 million viewers)
The September 25 game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints (14.9 million viewers),
The October 16 game between the Chicago Bears and the Arizona Cardinals (14.23 million viewers),
The December 16 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Indianapolis Colts (14.22 million viewers),
The September 18 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Jacksonville Jaguars (13.3 million viewers),
The October 2 game between the Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles (12.9 million viewers),
The November 27 game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks (12.7 million viewers),
The first ever Monday Night Football game on ESPN - the September 11 game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins (12.6 million viewers).
The October 9 game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos (12.5 million viewers), which attracted more viewers, during the television week of October 9-15, 2006, than NBC's Sunday Night Football Raiders-Broncos match up on October 15, 2006

After a remarkable 36-year run on ABC, Monday Night Football moved to ESPN. Both broadcast properties are owned by Disney. On September 21, 1970 as the Cleveland Browns played host to the New York Jets in the first Monday Night Football, an event (not simply a football game) that arguably changed the face of not only the National Football League but opened the doors for sports programming in television’s valued prime-time domain.

Long before that first ever MNF game the National Football League earlier had begun to explore the possibilities of primetime football, initially with CBS and NBC. However, not wishing to disrupt their primetime entertainment schedule of the "Doris Day Show" and "Laugh-In," respectively, they declined the NFL's offer.

When ABC finally received the proposal, the imaginative Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports for the network and formerly chairman of ABC News, seized the opportunity and was able to win over his more skeptical colleagues. Thus Monday Night Football was born.

Once he finalized the contract, Arledge had to convince a primetime audience that Monday Night Football was more than a game. It had become a pulsating show, combining outspoken journalism with abundant dashes of entertainment. His first decision was to create a visual and technical tour de force. While most Sunday games at the time were using four or five cameras, ABC would employ nine, including one sideline and two hand-held cameras.

Arledge created the broadcast team of Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson and Don Meredith, Monday Night Football's first broadcast team. When play-by-play man Jackson became the voice of ABC's College Football after Monday Night Football's inaugural season, Frank Gifford assumed the role and was a mainstay on MNF telecasts for 28 years.

After four years, Meredith moved to NBC and was replaced during the 1974 pre-season by Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. Alex Karras replaced Williamson for the regular season and continued through 1976 when Meredith returned. Fran Tarkenton spent four years with the team (1979-1982) and O.J. Simpson came on board in 1983. In 1985, Joe Namath joined Gifford and Simpson in the booth for one year. In 1986, Al Michaels joined MNF and teamed with Frank Gifford to form a two-man team. Dan Dierdorf joined Michaels and Gifford in 1987 and that team stayed together until 1998, when Boomer Esiason replaced Frank Gifford. The 2000 and 2001 seasons saw comedian Dennis Miller and Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts join Michaels in the booth while hall-of-fame running back Eric Dickerson and Melissa Stark manned the sidelines.

The idea of football in primetime certainly worked. Demographics show that nearly 40 percent of Monday Night Football viewers are women, breaking the long-held belief that sports could not compete successfully in primetime against entertainment.

The series' success was immediate. The schedule of 13 Monday night games shocked the critics, who predicted the series would achieve no better than a 24 percent share of the audience, by drawing 31 percent of America's viewers. The current schedule has grown to 20 Mondays (17 regular season, 3 preseason), all in primetime.

Innovations over the years have included the assignment of two complete units to telecast the game -- one for coverage and the other for isolated shots, stop-action and instant replay; elaborate computer-based machines which produce state-of-the-art graphics; a computerized information-retrieval system providing up-to-the-minute statistics as well as little-known facts from the past; reverse angle replays and the "super slo-mo" camera which provides a heretofore unattainable degree of clarity of slow motion replays, not to mention "1st &10" the electronic first down line.

The Browns – Jets game wasn’t the first NFL Monday Night Football game, just the beginning of an ongoing commitment by the NFL to regularly schedule games on Monday night. The early Monday night NFL games where televised by CBS and NBC on an experimental basis. These games happened in the late 1960s. The pre-1960s games were on Mondays either as special promotions or due to schedule conflicts.

During the early 1960s, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle envisioned the possibility of playing at least one game weekly during prime time for a greater TV audience. An early bid in 1964 to play on Friday nights was soundly defeated, with critics charging that such telecasts would damage the attendance at high school games. Undaunted, Rozelle decided to experiment with the concept of playing on Monday night, scheduling the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions for a game on September 28, 1964. While the game was not televised, it drew a sellout crowd of 59,203 to Tiger Stadium, the largest crowd ever to watch a professional football game in Detroit up to that point.

Two years later, Rozelle would build on this success as the NFL began a four-year experiment of playing on Monday night, scheduling one game in prime time on CBS during the 1966 and 1967 seasons, and two contests during each of the next two years. NBC followed suit in 1968 and 1969 with games involving AFL teams.

During subsequent negotiations on a television contract that would begin in 1970, Rozelle concentrated on signing a weekly Monday night deal with one of the three major networks. After sensing reluctance from both NBC and CBS in disturbing their regular programming schedules, Rozelle spoke with ABC.

Despite the network's status as the lowest-rated network, ABC was also reluctant to enter the risky venture. Only after Rozelle used the threat of signing with the independent Hughes Sports Network, an entity bankrolled by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, did ABC sign a contract for the scheduled games. Speculation was that had Rozelle signed with Hughes, many ABC affiliates would have pre-empted the network's Monday lineup in favor of the games, severely damaging potential ratings

After the final contract for Monday Night Football was signed, ABC producer Roone Arledge immediately saw possibilities for the new show. Setting out to create an entertainment "spectacle" as much as a simple sports broadcast, Arledge hired Chet Forte, who would serve as director of the program for over 22 years. Arledge also ordered twice the usual number of cameras to cover the game, expanded the regular two-man broadcasting booth to three and used extensive graphic design within the show as well as "instant replay."

Meredith would be absent from Monday Night Football for a broadcasting and acting career on rival NBC from 1974 through 1976. Fred Williamson, a former Kansas City Chiefs defensive back nicknamed "The Hammer" for his often-brutal hits, was selected by ABC to replace Meredith in 1974, but following a few pre-season broadcasts, proved so inarticulate that he was relieved of his duties prior to the start of the regular season, becoming the first MNF personality not to last an entire season. Williamson was replaced by fellow Gary, Indiana native Alex Karras, formerly of the Detroit Lions. The highlight of Williamson's MNF career was probably at the introductory press conference where he quipped that he was hired to "bring some color to the booth."

Karras made his debut on September 16, 1974 and immediately made an impact when he jokingly referred to Oakland Raiders' defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk as having attended "The University of Mars." That would essentially be the high point of Karras' three-year tenure, with a developing movie career often distracting him from showing any improvement. (In reality, Sistrunk did not attend any college but played semi-pro ball before getting a tryout with the Raiders; after Karras' remark and for the rest of Sistrunk's time with the team the Raiders team guide listed his college alma mater as "The University of Mars".)

Meredith returned to the ABC booth in 1977, but seemed to lack the enthusiasm that had marked his first stint from 1970-1973. While the NFL moved to a 16-week schedule in 1978, Meredith was only contractually obligated to work 14 games, leaving Cosell and Gifford to work games as a duo or with newly-retired Fran Tarkenton beginning in 1979.

One of the more somber contests in the run of the series came on November 27, 1978 when the San Francisco 49ers hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers. Earlier in the day, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk had been murdered at City Hall. Despite the complaints that followed, the NFL chose to play the game, a decision that mirrored the league's playing the weekend of the John F. Kennedy assassination 15 years earlier.

The opening contest of the 1979 season saw a poignant moment as former New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was introduced to a sellout crowd at the Patriots' Schaefer Stadium. Stingley had been paralyzed in a preseason game the year before and was making his first visit to the stadium since the accident.

One of the best remembered moments in Monday Night Football history occurred on December 8, 1980, yet had nothing to do with the game or football in general. During a game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, Howard Cosell broke the news of famed Beatle John Lennon's murder, news that stunned a nationwide audience.

“This, we have to say it, is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all The Beatles, shot five times in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead ... on ... arrival.”

In 1974, Lennon had appeared in the Monday Night Football broadcast booth and was briefly interviewed by Cosell.

The 1982 television contract renewal also put ABC in the Super Bowl rotation for the first time, with Super Bowl XIX in 1985. A second renewal of the television contract gave them XXII in 1988.

Cosell continued to draw criticism during Monday Night Football with one of his offhand comments during the September 5, 1983 game igniting a controversy and laying the groundwork for his departure at the end of that season. In a game between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, Cosell referred to Alvin Garrett, an African American wide receiver for the Redskins, as a "little monkey." Cosell noted that Garrett's small stature, and not his race, was the basis for his comment, citing the fact that he had used the term to describe his grandchildren. Later, a special on Howard Cosell showed him calling Mike Adamle (a white player) a "little monkey." Stung by the unrelenting barrage of remarks, Cosell claimed upon his departure from Monday Night Football that the NFL had become "a stagnant bore." In Cosell's book, I Never Played the Game, he devoted an entire chapter ("Monkey Business") to the Garrett episode. Also in I Never Played the Game, Cosell said that ABC should've had the right to choose its own Monday Night schedule. In his mind, Monday Night Football is what elevated the NFL in popularity over Major League Baseball. He felt this should have been ABC's reward for raising the level of the NFL's popularity.

That same year, O.J. Simpson replaced Tarkenton as a fill-in when Meredith or Cosell, who also was a broadcaster for Major League Baseball's playoffs, was unavailable. The season would serve as a study in contrasts as one of the most exciting Monday night games ever was followed the next week by one of the most badly-played in the run of the series. On October 17, 1983, the highest scoring game in Monday Night Football history took place in the Green Bay Packers/Washington Redskins game, with the Packers winning the game by a 48-47 score. Seven days later, the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals played for more than four hours before settling for a 20-20 tie. The deadlock had come after dropped touchdown passes by Cardinal wide receivers Willard Harrell and Roy Green and a trio of missed field goals by teammate Neil O'Donoghue, including two in the final 63 seconds of the overtime period.

When Cosell left prior to the start of the 1984, the trio of Gifford, Meredith and Simpson handled the duties. Cosell's departure seemed to have the greatest effect on Meredith, who many believed to be a poor analyst in his absence. Falling ratings also gave indications that much of the mystique that surrounded the weekly event had disappeared.

After the 1984 season, ABC replaced Meredith with Joe Namath the following year, with the quarterback making his debut in the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. In a coincidental twist, both Namath and Simpson were busy prior to the telecast with their induction into the shrine.

One of the more grisly moments in Monday Night Football history occurred during a game between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants on November 18, 1985, at RFK Stadium. Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's career would end when Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor reached from behind to drag him down and Taylor fell heavily on the quarterback’s leg in the process. On the play, which viewers could see in a gruesome slow-motion replay, Theismann suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his lower right leg.

Two weeks after that painful memory, the series' most watched contest took place as the previously unbeaten Chicago Bears were defeated by the Miami Dolphins, who had not lost to an NFC team at home since 1976. That would turn out to be Chicago's only loss in 1985. The show gained a Nielsen rating of 29.6 with a 46 share.

In 1987, Gifford and Michaels were joined by Dan Dierdorf, returning the series to its original concept of three announcers in the booth. The trio would last for 11 seasons through the conclusion of the 1997 season. In 1989, television composer Edd Kalehoff created a new arrangement of Johnny Pearson's "Heavy Action", by that time fully synonymous with the series. This more or less replaced an original composition by Charles Fox.

Along with the renewed television contract, ABC was awarded the telecast to Super Bowl XXV and Super Bowl XXIX, and the first round of NFL playoffs. The Monday Night Football team of announcers anchored the telecasts, except for the first of two wild card playoff games, where ESPN's Sunday Night NFL crew of Mike Patrick and Joe Theismann anchored that telecast. However, the original crew for one of the two wild card playoff games in 1990 and 1991 consisted of Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil (both of whom did college football broadcasts for ABC during those two seasons).

From 1990 until 2005, ABC's MNF television package has included seventeen regular season games (from 2003 until 2005, a Thursday game and 16 Mondays -- no game on Week 17 because of playoff preparation disadvantages), the first two wild card playoff games (held on the first Saturday of the playoffs), and at times, the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl.

The October 17, 1994 episode between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos featured a duel between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and John Elway. With 1:29 left to play in the game, Elway scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Broncos ahead 28-24. But then Montana led the Chiefs on a 75-yard drive to score the game-winning touchdown with just 8 seconds to play. The final score was Chiefs 31, Broncos 28.

In the 1995 MNF regular season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants at the New Jersey Meadowlands, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones controversially brought Nike chairman Phil Knight down to the sidelines, representing Jerry's individual deal with Nike, contrary to the NFL's policy of negotiating its marketing deals as a league.

In 1997, ABC began using a scoring bug showing the game clock and score throughout the entire broadcast.

Comedian Dennis Miller joined the cast in 2000 along with Dan Fouts. The move was ultimately regarded as a bust by many viewers and commentators. ABC briefly considered adding popular political commentator Rush Limbaugh before Miller was added to the broadcast team, despite having no prior sports broadcast experience. Miller demonstrated a knowledge of the game and its personalities, although at times he tended to lapse into sometimes obscure analogy-riddled streams of consciousness similar to his "rants." ABC eventually set up a Web page dedicated to explaining Miller's sometimes obscure pop culture references.

Also in 2000, Don Ohlmeyer, the program's producer up until 1977 was brought back. After spending time at NBC, Ohlmeyer was lured out of retirement to spark interest and provide some vigor to the broadcast. Besides the on-air talent, Ohlmeyer's changes included clips of players introducing themselves, new graphics, and music. In another rather irreverent move, the scoring bug was seen to have nicknames for the teams, such as "Skins" and "Fins" (for Redskins and Dolphins, respectively) instead of their common abbreviations, WSH and MIA, respectively.

In 2002, both Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts were dropped and John Madden joined Al Michaels in a two man booth, which is arguably one of the most successful of all time. Madden was a former coach for the Oakland Raiders, namesake of the seminal Madden NFL video game series, and successful broadcaster with the CBS and FOX networks for 21 years before joining Monday Night Football.

During the 2003 season, Lisa Guerrero decided to leave Fox Sports Net's The Best Damn Sports Show Period to join the MNF television crew as a sideline reporter (replacing the pregnant Melissa Stark). Guerrero's performance on the broadcast was heavily criticized, and the following year (also in an apparent move away from the "eye candy" concept) ABC replaced her with longtime TV sports journalist Michele Tafoya. Lisa Guerrero defended herself by saying that the show hired her with the intention of going in a totally different direction with the job of sideline reporter — personality-driven and feature-driven — then discarded all of that and told her to just do the job in the usual fashion. She said that she never would have taken the job if she had known that they would change their minds like that. In 2005, Michele Tafoya sat out much of the season while on maternity leave. In Tafoya's place came Sam Ryan.

On November 15, 2004, controversy shrouded then Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens when he appeared with popular TV actress Nicollette Sheridan (of the then new hit ABC series Desperate Housewives) in an introductory skit which opened that evening's MNF telecast, in which Owens and the Eagles played the Cowboys at Texas Stadium. The skit was widely condemned as being sexually suggestive and ABC was forced to apologize for airing it (the Eagles went on to win the game, 49-21, with Owens catching three touchdown passes). However, on March 14, 2005, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that the skit did not violate decency standards, because it contained no outright nudity or foul language.

Despite high ratings, ABC lost millions of dollars on televising the games during the late 1990s and 2000s. Also, the NFL indicated that it wanted Sunday night to be the new night for its marquee game, because more people tend to watch TV on Sundays, and Sundays would be more conducive to flexible scheduling, a method by which some of the NFL's best games could be moved from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night on short notice. Given these factors, as well as the rise of ABC's ratings on Sunday night, and their wish of protecting their Desperate Housewives franchise (which they knew would be costly), on April 18, 2005, ABC and the NFL announced the upcoming end of their 36-year partnership, with Monday Night Football being aired on ESPN starting with the 2006 season, a move some Disney shareholders have criticized. However, ESPN's ability to collect subscription fees from cable and satellite providers, in addition to selling commercials, made it more likely that ESPN could turn a profit on NFL telecasts, as opposed to ABC's heavy losses.

ESPN had initially believed that its MNF team would consist of Al Michaels and Joe Theismann in the booth with Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber serving as sideline reporters.

However, on February 8, 2006, ESPN announced that former NBA studio host Mike Tirico would replace Michaels in the booth in 2006, joined by Theismann, and Tony Kornheiser.

ESPN announced the following day that it had "traded" the contract of Michaels to NBC to join Madden on their Sunday Night Football broadcast in exchange for some NBC Universal properties, including rights to Ryder Cup coverage, and the return of the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (a Walt Disney creation) to ESPN parent The Walt Disney Company after nearly 80 years of Universal ownership.

It was widely rumored that Michaels wanted to leave ESPN after he learned that NBC hired most of ABC's MNF production team; he had not worked with the Sunday Night production team that ESPN was moving to MNF.

And here’s the bottom line – at $1.1 billion annually with or without the benefits of any Super Bowl games – Monday Night Football continues to provide ESPN with a tremendous platform to sell what ESPN is – the Worldwide Sports Leader.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources used in this Insider Report: ESPN, ABC and Wikipedia.

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