I’m seriously giving away my age but I can recall watching the first Monday Night Football telecast in September of 1970. Long before cable had arrived, we were only able to watch one game on Sunday afternoons. Prior to that first Monday night game, we had just upgraded from a 19” black and white to a 19” color. Color! Wow! At a time when we had a total of four channels and no remote control, color television and an additional game to watch were almost beyond fathomable.
The story leading up to that first telecast in September of 1970 was based on the efforts of then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. During the early 60’s, Rozelle wanted to expand the game to offer additional opportunities for the American television audience. An attempt in 1964 to play games on Friday nights was quickly dismissed with critics claiming attendance at high school football games would suffer. Not to be deterred, Rozelle contracted with CBS to air one NFL prime time game on Monday night during the 1966 and 1967 seasons. At that time, the rival American Football League had a television contract with NBC. Seeing the success of the first Monday night games, NBC followed suit by airing AFL games on Monday night during the 1968 and 1969 seasons.
After the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, the NFL and AFL merged. Rozelle acted quickly on the growing popularity of the sport to negotiate a contract to air weekly Monday night games. At that time, CBS and NBC were the dominant networks and both were reluctant to enter into what was perceived as a risky venture. Rozelle then approached ABC, which was the lowest rated network, about the possibility of signing a contract to air the games. Even with their lowest rating status, ABC shared their network rivals sentiment that the prospect of airing weekly games on Monday night was a less than stellar proposition. Sensing ABC’s reluctance, Rozelle approached the independent Hughes Sports Network, an entity wholly subsidized by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, with the proposed Monday night games. Upon hearing this news, ABC, although still less than convinced, entered into a contract with the NFL to begin airing games on Monday night for the 1970 season.
After the contract was signed, ABC selected Roone Arledge to produce the new show. Arledge began his career at ABC 10 years earlier when he was hired as an assistant producer. Arledge was quick to recognize that the network needed to present sports telecasts in a way the viewer hadn’t seen. As opposed to the somewhat rigid style of broadcasting the game on a play by play basis, Arledge wanted to provide the viewer with a spectacle. In September of 1960, ABC aired the network’s first college football telecast utilizing Arledge’s theories. The game featured the University of Alabama hosting the University of Georgia and college football was never the same again. Arledge had established a benchmark in the way the viewer watched the game. Expanding upon the same formula for success with college football, Arledge saw a wealth of possibilities for the new MNF program and began developing a product that was to be both entertaining and visually appealing. As his first order of business, Arledge hired Chet Forte as the director of MNF and they quickly brought innovations to the broadcast. MNF would have twice the number of cameras covering the action, graphics and displays that presented more information to the viewer, and added a third person to the typical two man broadcast booth.
With the production plan in place, Arledge set about the task of hiring an announcing team. Arledge was a friend of Frank Gifford and wanted him to be the play by play announcer for the telecasts. However, Gifford was under contract with CBS until 1971 and thus Arledge had to find an anchor. He initially tried to lure Curt Gowdy away from NBC and Vin Scully, the radio voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Being unable to secure the services of either, Arledge selected Keith Jackson, who at that time had yet to achieve his status as “the voice of college football” as he was to attain later in his career. Arledge then announced the hiring of Howard Cosell, a well educated attorney who had made a name for himself by establishing a unique relationship with the current heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali. To fill out the three man booth, Arledge turned to his friend Frank Gifford who suggested Don Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboy quarterback that recently retired from football. With the three man team of Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell, and Don Meredith in place, ABC was set to broadcast their first Monday night game.
ABC’s Monday Night Football hit the airwaves for the first time on September 21, 1970. The game took place in Cleveland with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Jets visiting the Browns. Little did anyone know at that time what an icon of American culture MNF was to become. The game drew a 33 rating, bringing elation to ABC executives and making Pete Rozelle look like the well deserved genius he was. Advertisers were charged $65,000.00 dollars per 60 second commercial, at the time an amount of money considered to be a bargain. The Browns went on to defeat the Jets, 31-21 and the groundwork had been set for the longest running primetime program in American television history.
The first season brought about the genesis of what became the sometimes combative relationship between Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. To hear Howard Cosell speak was tantamount to listening to someone who just recently had a bad experience with an enema. Cosell’s droning, nasally voice made skin crawl throughout America during the telecasts. With Cosell frequently uttering caustic and pompous comments, Meredith’s folksy southern drawl was a welcome diversion. With Cosell hammering home his points as if he were giving a closing argument to a jury, Meredith would light heartedly offer commentary regarding the play on the field. Meredith’s laid back approach fit the Cosell invented nickname of “Dandy Don” perfectly, while Cosell seemed to be disgusted and annoyed with Meredith’s antics. Meredith, who was friends with Willie Nelson, began singing the Nelson song Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over whenever a team scored to cause what appeared to be an insurmountable lead. Much to the chagrin of Cosell, and to the delight of viewers, Meredith would sing or hum the song throughout his tenure on MNF.
MNF quickly became must see TV long before the phrase was coined. No one can argue that while Cosell was annoying and obnoxious, MNF would never have achieved its popularity without him. In the years to follow, Cosell would continue to infuriate viewers to the point that “Cosell Bricks” became mandatory during MNF telecasts. The foam rubber blocks were fashioned into the shape and color of a brick with the name “Cosell” etched into the foam. During the telecast, whenever Cosell uttered something objectionable, which was frequent, the viewer could heave the brick at the TV and yell “Shut up Howard”!! By game’s end, there was a small mountain of Cosell Bricks piled in front of the TV.
The first season of MNF did bring amount mild controversy when Henry Ford II, chairman of the Ford Motor Company, and the primary sponsor for MNF, threatened to pull his sponsorship if Cosell wasn’t removed. Cosell was involved in yet another controversy when he appeared to be inebriated on the air during the first season’s November 23rd game between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. It was later reported that Cosell became so ill he vomited on Meredith’s cowboy boots near the end of the first half. Keith Jackson and Meredith provided the commentary for the remainder of the game.
Controversy and combative relationships aside, MNF had enjoyed a wildly successful first season. For the first time, women began watching the games which had previously been viewed overwhelmingly by men. The fact that women were turning away from other forms of entertainment to watch the games was exactly what Pete Rozelle and Roone Arledge had envisioned. Today, it’s estimated that nearly 40% of the viewers for MNF telecasts are women. The first season also marked the first of what was to become many appearances for several teams. The Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, and the Dallas Cowboys all appeared during the inaugural season and have continued to appear frequently throughout the 36 year history of MNF.
Prior to the 1971 season, Roone Arledge hired Frank Gifford to serve as the play by play announcer after he’d completed his contract with CBS. Teaming with Cosell and Meredith, Gifford began what was to become the longest tenure of any MNF broadcaster ending in 1998. Gifford was by no means the world’s greatest orator, but he was the perfect “straight” guy for Cosell and Meredith. Gifford was often criticized for his see no evil approach to the NFL but those criticisms were unfounded. With Cosell providing often bitter comments regarding the game in general, Gifford was able to call the play by play and allow Cosell and Meredith the space they needed. The three man team quickly became what is widely accepted as the best to have worked on MNF telecasts throughout its rich history.
With the tremendous success of the debut season, observations and criticisms from journalists and the average fan were focused on Howard Cosell and Don Meredith, and justifiably so. The chemistry that was established between the two during the inaugural season was quickly becoming legend. The mere fact that two polar opposites could drive a telecast to such popularity, especially a live sports telecast, was reshaping the broadcast format for the future. Just prior to the hiring of Frank Gifford in 1971 as the play by play announcer, Cosell was interviewed and offered his thoughts about the first season of MNF. The trio of Keith Jackson, Cosell, and Meredith had become so entertaining some complained they overshadowed the game. Cosell, being mindful of his popularity, pled guilty to the charge. Cosell asked the interviewer "What do people talk about on Tuesday morning?" Answering his own question, Cosell replied "They talk about me and Dandy and even Keith. “We have become, if I may continue to tell it like it is, which is my nature, bigger than the game." Cosell’s insight was completely accurate and exactly why the broadcast was so popular. No longer was it so much about watching the game, but tuning in to watch Cosell and Meredith.
On October 9, during the 1972 season, the Oakland Raiders were headed for a 34-0 drubbing of the Houston Oilers. As the fans left the Astrodome during the final quarter, the cameras found a fan alone in his section, asleep. Cosell commented regarding the sleeping man as "a vivid picturization of the excitement attendant upon this game.” Suddenly, the man woke up, and proceeded to "flip off" the camera. Without missing a beat, Meredith commented, "he thinks they're number one in the nation!" It would be four year before the Oilers appeared again on MNF, and a total of six years before Houston hosted another Monday night game.
During the 1973 season, it appeared Meredith began to lose his sense of purpose. Having received critical acclaim for his work during the first three seasons, he seemed to be more intent on having a good time as opposed to providing the type of commentary that won him acclaim. On October 22, Meredith began his pre-game comments of the Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders game from Denver by stating "we're in the Mile High City and I sure am." It was no secret that Meredith enjoyed the drippings of his fame, partaking in wine, women, song – and marijuana. During the Pittsburgh Steelers-Washington Redskins game on November 5, he referred to Richard Nixon as "Tricky Dick." Meredith apparently confused his presence as a commentator with being a pure entertainer and as such, ABC executives began questioning his motivation. Based upon his performance during the 1973 season, Meredith’s popularity couldn’t justify ABC from retaining his services as a member of the MNF crew. In 1974, Meredith left MNF to work at NBC under a contract in which he would cover football and act on television shows. This action ushered in a new era of MNF and would continue a cycle of rotating personalities in the broadcast booth until the present. In addition, Meredith’s departure brought about a series of events that would make the 1974 season the most tumultuous and intriguing season in MNF history.
Fred Williamson, a former Kansas City Chiefs player nicknamed "The Hammer", was hired by ABC to replace Meredith in 1974. With his reputation for saying outrageous things, and with his stardom in "blaxploitation" films of the early 70’s, ABC was hopeful his presence would widen the program's fan base. Instead, the highlight of Williamson's MNF career was probably at the introductory press conference where he joked that he was hired to "bring some color to the booth." Unfortunately, the hiring of Williamson proved to be a complete disaster. Williamson’s debut during the first pre-season broadcasts proved to be nothing short of horrendous. As opposed to wearing the traditional wardrobe of the network, Williamson opted for open-collared shirts and gaudy jewelry. He was “Super Fly” and looked the part, more pimp than broadcaster. Williamson had little to say, and when he did offer an utterance, it was of no relevance. Gone were the verbal jabs between Meredith and Cosell, which had proved to be the driving force of the telecast. Williamson was so incompetent he was fired prior to the start of the 1974 regular season, earning him the dubious distinction of becoming the first MNF broadcaster not to last an entire season.
Williamson was replaced by Alex Karras, a former player with the Detroit Lions who had acted in several movie and television roles, most notably as “Mongo” in the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles. Karras made his debut on September 16, 1974 and immediately made his presence felt. During the game between the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills, the camera focused on Raiders defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk sitting on the bench. At that time, Sistrunk was one of the very few players in the NFL, or any other sport, to have a completely shaved head. Upon seeing Sistrunk, Karras jokingly referred to him as having attended "The University of Mars." After Karras' remark and for the rest of Sistrunk's time with the Raiders, the official team guide listed Sistrunk’s alma mater as "The University of Mars.” Much to the dismay of ABC and the viewers, that would basically be the high point of Karras' three-year tenure. With a burgeoning movie career apparently restraining him from showing any real interest in his purpose, and as with Fred Williamson, there was no chemistry between him and Cosell. As a result, Cosell was left to carry the broadcast and was obviously no where near as effective without a philosophical adversary.
With Meredith’s departure, the miserably failed experiment with Fred Williamson, and the lackluster performance of Alex Karras, the highlight of the 1974 season occurred during the December 9 game between the Washington Redskins and the Los Angeles Rams. California Governor Ronald Reagan and former Beatle John Lennon were to be interviewed at halftime. Upon hearing who the guests were, Cosell quickly indicated that he’d “take the Beatle” while Frank Gifford would interview Reagan. During the first half of the game, Reagan and Lennon were in a room together watching the game. That these two were in the same room was amazing given that Reagan was viewed as a staunch traditionalist with little use for long hair or radical ideas, and Lennon was fighting a U.S. order to deport him, stemming from an earlier drug conviction. The two got along well, with Reagan explaining American football to Lennon, who was attending his first NFL game. It was the same ability to connect with people that Reagan used to become “the great communicator” during his two terms as President of the United States. It was later learned that Lennon so enjoyed his experience with MNF, he gave Gifford and Cosell each a complete collection of Beatles albums, which he autographed.
Meredith returned to MNF in 1977, but appeared to be a watered down version of “Dandy Don” which made his stint from 1970 to 1973 so memorable. While not publicly stated, ABC executives made it clear to Meredith that the controversies leading to his departure in 1973 wouldn’t be tolerated. As a result, the interaction between him and Cosell was much less volatile, leaving viewers disappointed. In 1978 the NFL added two regular season games bringing the total number of games to 16 for each team. Meredith was only contractually obligated to work 14 games, leaving Cosell and Gifford to work two games as a duo. In 1979, after 18 seasons in the NFL, Fran Tarkenton was hired to join Cosell and Gifford on a part-time basis, primarily as a fill-in for the two games Meredith didn’t work. Tarkenton’s work was competent, yet unremarkable and further illustrated that the fireworks created between Cosell and Meredith made any other personality’s presence virtually untenable. Tarkenton’s left MNF without fanfare after the 1982 season.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in MNF history occurred on December 8, 1980, during the game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. Howard Cosell broke the news of former Beatle John Lennon's murder, almost six years to the day when he first appeared as part of the halftime show during a 1974 game.
“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.”
Lennon’s death sent shock waves around the country, an iconic figure that for many, symbolized the core of an entire generation. The baby boomers that had grown up admiring The Beatles likened his assassination to that of former President John F. Kennedy. Just as everyone knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when JFK was shot, so did those upon hearing the news of Lennon’s demise. While Lennon’s death certainly didn’t have the world wide effect that JFK’s assassination had, it was a sobering event none the less. How appropriate was the fact that Howard Cosell, perhaps the most controversial journalist of that era, and the man who’d interviewed him during halftime of a 1974 MNF telecast, was the person to bring us the terrible news.
Beginning in 1983, O.J. Simpson replaced Tarkenton to serve the same purpose during Meredith’s absence. In Simpson’s defense, he was at least enthusiastic and offered meaningful insight during the telecasts on which he appeared. On Sept. 5, during the first MNF game of the season between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, Cosell referred to Alvin Garrett, a black wide receiver for the Redskins, as a "little monkey." Point in fact, I recall vividly watching the game and seeing the play take place, Cosell actually said “look at that little monkey go” weaving his way down the field to score, culminating a spectacular play. Responding to a barrage of criticism following the game, 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. Many would come to Cosell’s defense, citing an earlier MNF telecast where Cosell referred to Mike Adamle, a white player, as a "little monkey." The remarks came at a most unfortunate time because the game resulted in one of the greatest comebacks in MNF history. The Cowboys, down 23-3 at halftime, rallied to win the game 31-30. Two other historically important games took place that season with perhaps the most exciting game ever to have been played on MNF. The October 17, 1983 match up between the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins ended with the Packers earning a 48-47 victory, and to this day is still the highest scoring game in MNF history. One week later, the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals battled to a 20-20 overtime tie, and is the only game to have ever ended in a tie in MNF history.
Amid the overwhelming controversy that was incurred due to his “little monkey” comment, Howard Cosell, hired to be the lightning rod of MNF, resigned his position at the end of the 1983 season. Regardless of how annoying Cosell was, week after week millions of viewers tuned in just to hear what he had to say. The tremendous success enjoyed by MNF was due in large to his presence, and that same popularity has never been reached since. Stung by the unrelenting barrage of remarks, Cosell claimed upon his departure from MNF that the NFL had become "a stagnant bore." The 1983 season brought about what was to become the end of an era for MNF.
With Howard Cosell’s departure prior to the start of the 1984 season, Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and O.J. Simpson comprised the three man broadcast team. Cosell's absence proved to have the greatest effect on Meredith, who no longer had anyone to exchange verbal jabs with. Similar to the departure of Meredith between 1974 and 1976, there were no philosophical differences between Meredith and Simpson. Neither were there differing points of view to the action taking place on the field. As ratings began to fall for the first time, it indicated that much of the mystique surrounding MNF had disappeared. After the 1984 season, ABC replaced Meredith with Joe Namath. Nicknamed “Broadway Joe,” the former New York Jets quarterback led the Jets to an upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The scene of Namath running off the field waving his index finger is one of the most recognizable images in NFL history. The Jets victory was instrumental in bringing about the merger between the NFL and AFL.
Namath, however, was completely unprepared for the task of providing color commentary. Joe sounded like he had a mouthful of marshmallows and simply couldn’t offer concise, well enunciated sentences. With Gifford, Simpson and Namath in the broadcast booth, MNF began a downward spiral. Long gone was the magic that existed between Meredith and Cosell. Much like the previous year with Meredith and Simpson providing the color commentary, Namath and Simpson offered no countering points of view regarding the play on the field. One of the most memorable games in MNF history took place on November 18, 1985 between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants. Redskins’ quarterback Joe Theismann’s dropped back to pass, when Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor rushed and ultimately sacked him from behind. In the process, Theismann’s leg twisted under him as the viewers could see in a gruesome slow-motion replay. Taylor immediately recognized Theismann was injured and began waving frantically towards the Redskins’ sideline for the training staff. Theismann suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg, and as a result, never played a down of football again.
On December 2, 1985, the most anticipated game of the NFL season took place in Miami with the undefeated Chicago Bears visiting the Dolphins. The Bears entered the game with a 12-0 record and were striving to become only the second team to finish a season undefeated. The Dolphins were acutely aware of the historical importance of the game and played perhaps their best game of the season. The Dolphins beat the Bears 38-24 and that would turn out to be Chicago's only loss in 1985, preserving the record of the 1972 Dolphins as being the last undefeated team. The game drew a Nielsen rating of 29.6 with a 46 share and to this day is the highest rated MNF telecast throughout its 37-year history.
With the completion of the 1985 season, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson were fired, much to the approval of viewers. Beginning with the 1986 campaign, veteran broadcaster Al Michaels was hired to team with Gifford forming a two man booth. Michaels became the new play by play announcer with Gifford becoming the new color commentator. With his hiring, Michaels would embark on the second longest tenure of any MNF personality, serving in the broadcast booth for 19 seasons. The color commentator role was unfamiliar territory for Gifford; his even disposition and steady delivery was a welcomed relief for viewers that endured the previous season with Namath and Simpson. Gifford was still a straight shooter and didn’t provide the sharp criticisms of Howard Cosell or the light hearted commentary of Don Meredith, but he and Michaels co-existed well. During the 1986 season, the Miami Dolphins again made MNF night history with a 45-3 rout of the New York Jets. The Jets entered the game with a record of 10-1, and the 42 point margin of victory was the largest ever to take place on MNF and would remain until the 2005 season.
In 1987, Gifford and Michaels were joined by Dan Dierdorf, a former player with the St. Louis Cardinals and a soon to be Hall of Fame inductee. With the addition of Dierdorf, it marked a return to the original concept of a three man broadcast team. Dierdorf was received well by viewers as he provided enthusiastic commentary without being overbearing. Dierdorf wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions and didn’t mind ruffling a few feathers in the process. The trio would last for 11 seasons through the conclusion of the 1997 season and became the longest tenured trio in MNF history. However, it was clear that Gifford’s role in the booth was diminishing with each passing season. Dierdorf dominated the color commentary while Gifford would provide only minimal thoughts regarding play on the field. By the end of the 1997 season, Gifford became an afterthought in the MNF booth and would leave after 27 seasons.
The October 17, 1994 match up between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos featured 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 with time left on the clock and being perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Montana led the Chiefs on a 75-yard drive to score the game winning touchdown with just 8 seconds to play. It was the one of the last great moments in Montana’s storied career that ended that same year.
For the 1998 season, Boomer Esiason replaced Frank Gifford in the broadcast booth maintaining a three man crew of Michaels, Dierdorf, and Esiason. The 1998 season also brought a new start time for MNF telecasts as ABC decided to revise the kick off time for each game to 8:20 P.M. eastern, a move many viewers welcomed. The fact that many games were ending well past midnight in the Eastern Time zone was causing viewers to miss, in some cases, almost the entire second half. Unfortunately the NFL didn’t acknowledge the disparity in start times between the eastern and Pacific Time zones, and the overall length of games until about 10 years beyond its practicality. Critics believe much of the ratings woes ABC encountered between 1984 and 2005, was a result of the late start time.
One of the more embarrassing moments took place during the 1998 season finale when prior to a halftime interview with Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie, Dierdorf asked Michaels, "Are you gonna tell 'em how you're sick of all this B.C. stuff?" Michaels, thinking that they had gone into a commercial break and that his microphone was off, replied, "No shit." Nielsen numbers for the 1998 TV season showed that MNF averaged a 13.9 rating, down 8 percent from 1997's 15.0, the previous standard in ratings futility. In actuality, MNF ratings had been hitting all time record lows for the previous four years. With the conclusion of the 1998 season, Dan Dierdorf left MNF to take a similar job with CBS. Boomer Esiason would team with Michaels during the 1999 season amid controversy. The two apparently never got along, disagreeing on virtually every aspect of the telecast. While the tension between the two didn’t play out during the telecasts, the failed experiment resulted in ABC firing Esiason shortly after the 1999 season.
Perhaps the most controversial hiring occurred prior to the 2000 season when ABC hired comedian Dennis Miller to work along side Al Michaels. In addition to the Miller hiring, ABC again formed a three man booth by hiring former San Diego Charger quarterback Dan Fouts. The hiring of Miller was especially shocking because he had no background in sports journalism. Moreover, his particular brand of comedy was viewed as being too sophisticated for the average MNF viewer. Miller demonstrated a knowledge of the game and its players, but just as critics and viewers feared, Miller would often spin into one of his “rants” leaving viewers bewildered. While Michaels at least appeared to “get” Miller, Dan Fouts was clearly intellectually overmatched. Fouts didn’t understand the pop culture based ramblings of Miller, and was often left to sound more like a village idiot than a color commentator. In an effort to help viewers understand Miller’s rants, ABC established a web page dedicated to explaining his obscure references and vocabulary.
Also in 2000, Don Ohlmeyer, the original producer of MNF from 1970 until 1977, 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. The highlight of the 2000 season occurred on October 23, 2000 when the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins played in what is now known as “The Monday Night Miracle.” Trailing 30-7 in the fourth quarter, the Jets scored 23 consecutive points to tie the game. After Miami scored another touchdown, Jets’ quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw a touchdown pass to offensive tackle Jumbo Elliott to tie the game at 37. At 1:08 A.M. the following morning, Jets’ place kicker John Hall booted a field goal in overtime to win the game 40-37. It was the second biggest fourth quarter comeback in NFL history and the biggest comeback in Jets' history.
Upon the conclusion of the 2001 season, ABC decided to rid themselves of Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts. While Miller wasn’t that bad in terms of his purpose in the booth, viewers were simply annoyed with his rants and Fouts was completely ineffective. Veteran broadcaster John Madden became available when his long time partner Pat Summerall retired from broadcasting. Madden and Summerall had worked together at CBS before moving to Fox when the network acquired the NFC package of games. Summerall and Madden enjoyed 21 years together broadcasting games and both knew change was imminent. In addition, Fox needed to make room for rising star Joe Buck and Madden, while not viewed as expendable, was allowed to seek other opportunities. Madden joined Al Michaels in the MNF booth beginning with the 2002 season, a move that brought stability and instant credibility to the broadcast.
Michaels and Madden worked very well together and the results were positive among viewers. Michaels had always been one of the better play by play men because of his ability to think along with the fans. Michaels could lead a color commentator to voice his opinions without forcing the issue, and Madden never had a problem with doing just that. Madden was comfort food to the viewers who had become accustomed to his “boom” and analogies of the game.
Another incredible comeback would take place during the contest between the Indianapolis Colts and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 6, 2003. Indianapolis was trailing 35-14 with 3:43 remaining in the game. The Colts had returned a Tampa Bay kickoff 90 yards to the Bucs’ 11 yard line, setting up a quick score. The Colts recovered an onside kick and scored again to narrow the margin to 35-28. They forced a Tampa Bay punt and with less two minutes remaining, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning led an 87-yard touchdown drive tying the game with 35 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 40-yard field goal, but Simeon Rice was called for a leaping penalty, an infraction that is rarely called. Vanderjagt's subsequent kick was batted and hit the upright, but fell in good, winning the game for the Colts. Vanderjagt went on to become the first kicker in NFL history not to miss a kick attempt in a complete season, including the playoffs.
On December 22, 2003, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre put on one of the most defining moments of his career. The day before the contest against the Oakland Raiders, his father, Irvin, died suddenly of a heart attack. Favre elected to play, passing for four touchdowns in the first half, and 399 yards for the game in a 41-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
Despite high ratings, ABC lost millions of dollars on televising MNF games during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In addition, the NFL indicated it wanted Sunday night to be the new night for its marquee game, because more people tend to watch TV on Sundays. Moreover, Sundays would be more conducive to flexible scheduling, allowing more compelling and important games to be rescheduled from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night on short notice. While ABC sought flexible scheduling for the Monday night games for years, the NFL rationed, and justifiably so, that moving other networks Sunday games to Monday wasn’t feasible. Given these factors, on April 18, 2005, ABC and the NFL announced that the 2005 season would be the last for MNF on ABC, ending their 36 year partnership. Monday Night Football would move to ESPN starting with the 2006 season, and the new Sunday night package would move to NBC. 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.
The final ABC MNF broadcast was on December 26, 2005, when the New York Jets hosted the New England Patriots. The Jets earned the distinction as being one of the two teams to appear in the first and last MNF telecast. Ironically, the Jets lost the game 31-21, just as they did against the Cleveland Browns in the first MNF telecast in September of 1970. The final play of the ABC era was a Pats kneel-down by 44-year-old reserve quarterback Doug Flutie. MNF had become a shadow of its former self but had provided a generation of fans with some of the greatest moments in NFL history. John Madden said at the games ending “They can take football away from ABC on Monday nights, but they can't take away the memories.” Somewhere I could hear Howard Cosell droning on about the sad state of affairs that had become MNF, and Dandy Don was singing Turn out the Lights, the Party’s Over.
ESPN signed an eight-year contract worth $1.1 billion a year, double the price of ABC's final contract, to televise MNF. ESPN initially announced its MNF team would consist of Al Michaels and Joe Theismann in the booth. However, on February 8, 2006, ESPN announced that Mike Tirico would replace Michaels in the booth, joined by Theismann and Tony Kornheiser. In addition, ESPN announced it had "traded" the contract of Michaels to NBC so he could join the recently hired John Madden on their Sunday Night Football broadcast. It was widely rumored that Michaels wanted to leave ESPN after he learned that NBC hired most of ABC's former MNF production team. It was a portent of things to come as ESPN embarked upon its first season of MNF.
The first regular season MNF game to air on ESPN was on September 11, 2006, with the Minnesota Vikings visiting the Washington Redskins. The three man booth of Tirico, Theismann and Kornheiser was a dysfunctional family from the very beginning. Theismann spent John Edwards like time on his hair and blabbered on about his playing days with the Redskins. Kornheiser, a sports journalist that had a column in The Washington Post and co hosted ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, took it upon himself to be the comic relief of the broadcast. Why is it that every time I see Kornheiser I think of Krusty the Clown?
The fact that ESPN had turned an American icon into a complete disaster so quickly was shocking. The telecast had become a contest between Theismann and Kornheiser to see who could speak the most and do so as annoyingly as possible. Theismann was never interested in anything beyond promoting himself and Kornheiser proved to be a buffoon. The two clearly didn’t get along and the telecast suffered, as did the viewing audience. To make matters worse, the marquee games had taken place on Sunday and ESPN was left with only a marginally compelling match up. ESPN made MNF into an over hyped, over analyzed and sorely over rated event.
MNF anchor Mike Tirico was interviewed regarding the criticisms ESPN received after the first season. Tirico had this to say: "People who try to make comparisons to what MNF was 25 to 30 years ago and now -- I think it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." "I see really respected writers talk about: 'Well, MNF used to be like this.' Well, you know what? The writing has changed at Time magazine in 30 years. The network news has changed. Everything's changed. "What MNF is now is a show where we have to consider there are a lot of options. What we try to do is keep as much of the audience as we can while giving the core audience everything they need and giving the casual viewer something to stay around for. It's a huge challenge.'' Therein lies the problem – Tirico simply doesn’t get it. Howard Cosell quickly recognized that MNF wasn’t just about the game; it was also about the personalities broadcasting the game. The three man team of Tirico, Theismann and Kornheiser surely didn’t have the viewers hearkening back to the days of Gifford, Meredith, and Cosell.
In ESPN’s defense, television in general was a much different form of media when MNF first aired on ABC in 1970. Only seven percent of American homes received basic cable in 1970, whereas today roughly 85% of households have basic cable. The evolution of MNF can't be measured solely in years; it is part of a time line that has seen sports grow to monstrous proportions. The transition from network to cable signals a change in TV sports broadcasting and shapes how NFL games are televised as the league seeks to maintain its core audience while wooing a new generation of fans. ESPN's first season of MNF produced a 9.9 rating, appearing in 9.1 million households and featuring 12.3 million viewers per game. By comparison, the average audience for MNF on ABC in 2003 was 16.8 million. However, while ABC lost hundreds of millions on MNF, ESPN has turned a profit.
Analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski replaced Joe Theismann in the booth beginning with the 2007 season. Jaworski was a welcome addition full of football insight and critical points, which bodes well for the future of MNF on ESPN. Admittedly, there are times when Jaworski appears to be a tad overzealous, but I can handle that because he loves the game. Unfortunately for viewers, ESPN didn’t have the wisdom to fire Kornheiser as well. Reportedly, the telecast has become “Kornheiser’s show” and Jaworski was seen as being the perfect fit to accommodate him. What the new season shows is that replacing Theismann hasn’t altered the snooze factor. It’s not that we expect MNF will be the national event it was when we were kids. But we do expect to watch a game without the endless crossover promotions for ESPN's sister network ABC, and the distracting celebrity interviews in the booth during the game.
The 2007 season opener only validated what fans had been saying about the presence of Kornheiser in the booth. In the middle of the third quarter, Kornheiser asked if Kanye West was related to Adam West. What? For those of you who don’t know Kanye West or Adam West, Kanye West is a young black rapper, and Adam West is the white guy who played Batman on television. During another telecast while conducting the mind numbing celebrity interview, Kornheiser asked Desperate Housewives star James Denton to "rate the housewives." Considering that 40% of viewers consist of women, this isn’t exactly the way to endear them. The obvious conclusion is that there’s simply no reason to have Kornheiser in the booth. You would think a journalist such as Kornheiser might have some important nuggets to impart as Cosell did. Instead, we get to hear Kornheiser make asinine proclamations like “this game feels critical,” and “the toe is the Achilles heel for great athletes.”
A recent poll indicated only 7 percent of the respondents said they actually like ESPN's MNF broadcasts while 79 percent said they did not. The remaining 14 percent said they do not watch MNF. Fans aren't happy and ratings have begun to fall, in part because viewers are losing patience even if ESPN doesn't want to admit it. All good things must come to an end, and unfortunately for ESPN, the end came over 20 years ago when Howard Cosell and Don Meredith left the MNF booth. The game was an event where friends got together for the sole purpose of watching MNF. Now, if you actually watch the game, and ratings suggest many aren’t, you do so with the sound muted.
MNF Facts and Trivia.
What was the original color of the blazers worn by the broadcasting team?
What is the actual name of the MNF theme song – not the one Hank Williams, Jr. sings.
The worst match up in MNF history was in 1999 when the Atlanta Falcons played the San Francisco 49ers in the last game of the season, with both teams entering the contest with records of 4-11. This game sparked the debate about flexible scheduling to prevent match ups between sub .500 teams.
The two most common match ups on MNF have been between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins, and the Denver Broncos against the Oakland Raiders, both with 14 appearances.
What is the maximum number of appearances one team can make on MNF during a season?
The game clock and score were not continuously shown throughout the game on screen until 1997.
The Cowboys-Giants game on October 23, 2006 had the largest cable TV audience in history, besting the Gore-Perot debate in 1993 with over 16 million viewers. To date, MNF has 8 of the top 10 viewing audiences in TV history.
MNF is tape-delayed in Hawaii until 6 P.M. local time, but broadcast live on radio. The "radio game" is almost over when the TV broadcast begins that evening.
MNF is aired "live" at 11am on Tuesdays in Guam.
The only neutral site game in MNF history was in 2003 between San Diego and Miami played in Tempe, Arizona. This was due to the fires in the San Diego area. Tickets were free for the game.
Pieces of film from the MNF game between Arizona and Dallas in 1995 were used to make the 1996 film, Jerry Maguire.
The first sponsor of MNF was Marlboro Cigarettes - before cigarette commercials were banned from TV.
Debuting in 1989, Hank Williams, Jr. sang All My Rowdy Friends Are Here on Monday Night, a spin off of his 1984 hit All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin' Over Tonight.
Beginning in 1999, MNF telecasts used a computer-generated yellow line to mark where a team needs to get a first down. ESPN had begun using it first.
In 2003, ABC and the NFL dropped the MNF game for the final week of the regular season. The move, which had been in effect for the first eight years of the broadcast (1970-1977), was the result of declining ratings, as well as problems involved for playoff teams, as there was a potential of only four days between their final regular season game and first round playoff game. ABC replaced the telecast with an opening weekend Thursday night game, and in exchange ESPN got a Saturday night game on the final weekend.
In November 2004, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens appeared with whom in a pregame skit?
In 2005, the Seattle Seahawks matched the record for MNF margin of victory, shutting out the hometown Philadelphia Eagles, 42-0. However, two weeks later, the Baltimore Ravens establish a new benchmark in this department by defeating the Green Bay Packers, 48-3.