ESPN is casting a fairly wide net in its search for Jon Gruden’s replacement in the “Monday Night Football” booth. This week, the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reported that the network brought in Brett Favre for an audition and “he was not great,” though Favre later said he’s ambivalent about whether he even wants to get into sports broadcasting. Now we get word from USA Today’s A.J. Perez and Jeff Zillgitt that Kurt Warner is getting “serious consideration” for the job.
Or maybe it’ll be Rex Ryan, Matt Hasselbeck, Booger McFarland, Louis Riddick or Joe Thomas joining Joe Tessitore in the booth. They’ve all been mentioned as possibilities. Or maybe ESPN will drive a dump truck full of cash up to Jason Witten’s house, or Greg Olsen’s house, money that would trump any desire to continue their playing careers.
The possibilities here are seemingly endless and definitely pointless. Any one of those guys likely would be fine color commentators, seeing as how they’re either established TV personalities or seemingly personable current/former players, and it won’t matter one bit.
Here’s why people tune in to “Monday Night Football”: to see (hopefully) good teams playing (hopefully) good games before the NFL goes dark for three agonizing days. The chances of a color commentator being some sort of game-changing presence are more or less nil.
Look at Gruden. ESPN reportedly paid him $6.5 million per season, reportedly making him the network’s highest-paid employee. It was an astounding sum for any sports broadcaster who basically worked a four-month NFL season plus some time helping cover the NFL draft, yet Gruden’s presence did nothing to help viewership. In 2009, Gruden’s first season in the booth, “MNF” averaged a 9.0 rating and 14.4 million viewers. Since then, the trajectory of those numbers has been pointed mostly down, and last season the games averaged a 6.8 rating and 10.8 million viewers, the lowest-watched season in “MNF” history.
Gruden obviously didn’t drive people to cut their cords or become otherwise disenchanted with the NFL, but it’s not like his presence did anything to stem the decline or otherwise attract any sort of untapped audience. Everyone thinks Tony Romo was a revelation in his first year in the booth, and the overall ratings were bad, bad, bad.
The NFL will release its regular season schedule Thursday night, setting in stone the Monday night games nearly five months before the season begins. A lot will happen between now and then with the draft, training camp and preseason games, the latter two usually the scene of significant injuries to marquee players, and the matchups announced Thursday night may not look as good as they did when they were announced in the springtime. Some of them won’t look very good right off the bat — no injuries required — while others won’t seem all that alluring now but will become must-watch events come October or November.
It’s a scheduling crapshoot, in other words, and ESPN has come out on the losing end in recent years. The only way to change the odds in its favor would for the NFL include Monday nights in its flex-scheduling plan, which seems highly unlikely for now because of logistical and political reasons (any game that gets flexed to ESPN on Monday nights is a game that is taken away from Fox or CBS, which already have to decide which games to protect from NBC as the season rolls on).
According to the New York Post, the Jets and Lions will open ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” schedule this season. It’s not a matchup that screams must-see TV — frankly, it seems like a matchup that could physically repel viewers — but fans will watch because it’s Week 1 and it’s the NFL, not because Joe Tessitore and Partner X are the second coming of Pat Summerall and John Madden. At some point they very well could be — Tessitore is a steady hand and I think he’ll do well with whoever is sitting next to him — but it’s plainly obvious by now that the NFL no longer is appointment television on Monday nights. There isn’t a color commentator alive who is going to change that.
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