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ESPN wanted Peyton Manning on ‘Monday Night Football.’ This year, its dream (sort of) comes true.

Peyton Manning at his “Monday Night Football” studio in Denver. (Gabriel Christus/ESPN Images) (Gabriel Christus / ESPN Images)

A few minutes into Monday night’s alternate ESPN2 telecast of the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders, Peyton Manning tried to put on a Baltimore helmet and call plays, as if he were quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“Can, can, can,” he said, waving his arms in a TV studio.

“What’s the can mean?” Manning’s brother Eli asked, his voice beamed into the telecast from another studio.

Manning tried to explain that Jackson was killing a play but couldn’t get the words out.

“The helmet doesn’t fit,” he said, laughing, as he took it off.

For years now, ESPN executives have chased Peyton Manning. Monday night, they finally got him where they’ve long wanted him: back on an NFL broadcast, though there were a few catches.

Most Mondays this season, Manning will be at a friend’s warehouse in Denver that has been outfitted with a TV studio, sharing the screen and commentary duties for “Monday Night Football” with Eli, who will appear from his house in New Jersey. (Both Mannings were in New York on Monday.)

They made their debut Monday night, kibitzing with famous guests, including Charles Barkley, who gleefully announced that he bet the Raiders with the points, and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. The Manning broadcast throughout the season will be a family-themed, travel-free arrangement. Or, in other words, exactly how Peyton Manning would like it.

For years, sports network executives have salivated after Manning, the telegenic Hall of Fame quarterback who has long seemed destined to thrive in a TV booth. A heartland icon, he has hosted “Saturday Night Live” with aplomb and served as a chummy pitchman for corporate America. “God bless you and God bless football,” he said at his Hall of Fame induction speech last month. Monday’s debut offered fans a long-awaited chance to hear his insights in real time, unscripted — to learn whether he is as good as the industry always thought he would be, and how he stacks up to contemporaries such as Tony Romo at CBS.

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The early returns were promising, despite a frenetic opening few minutes and a fire alarm that at one point interrupted the telecast. Manning was self-deprecating (“I had better timing with Ed Reed than Reggie Wayne,” he joked at one point) and told a story about berating a referee and wanting to send him an apology, only to be rebuffed by the NFL when he asked for his address.

Manning’s arrival at ESPN signifies the latest progression in the network’s MegaCast strategy, offering alternate broadcasts to fans for big games. But it is also indicative of Manning’s own gravitational pull and the aspirations he has for his new production company, Omaha Productions. (“Calling a game from home with your brother sounds pretty good to me,” another NFL analyst said.)

Manning declined to be interviewed for this story, and those close to him know well his desire for message control. One sports media executive who has worked with Manning requested anonymity just to offer effusive praise.

“He’s the white whale of the industry,” the executive said. “If everything in America is a culture war right now, Peyton Manning bridges red states and blue states like few other people in the country. It’s, like, him and the Rock.”

Manning had never called a game before Monday, but the very thought of his availability has rippled through sports TV for years. CBS went after Manning following his career-capping Super Bowl win in 2016. Network chairman Sean McManus was looking for a replacement for top analyst Phil Simms then; the job went to Romo. CBS called Manning again a couple of years later when it feared that Romo was readying to jump ship for ESPN. Romo ended up staying with CBS for the biggest deal in sports broadcasting history.

Fox Sports had its own courtship with Manning, hiring Cooper, Peyton’s other brother, to do work for them while Peyton was still playing. The idea, according to a former Fox executive, was that it could be a sweetener to lure Manning at some point. When Fox landed the rights to “Thursday Night Football” in 2018, network president Eric Shanks, an Indiana native who had a Manning Indianapolis Colts jersey displayed on a wall in his office, reached out to Manning.

Manning said no, but after the amount of that offer got back to Fox’s incumbent top analyst, Troy Aikman, Shanks hopped on a plane to St. Louis for a dinner with Aikman and his partner, Joe Buck, to iron out a new contract for the former Cowboys quarterback. Aikman signed up for “Thursday Night Football” and left the dinner with a raise.

ESPN, meanwhile, whiffed twice on Manning. It flew a team of executives to Denver to court him for “Monday Night Football” first after Jon Gruden returned to coaching in 2018. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro flew back to Denver for a pitch dinner with Manning and the same job offer the next year. Manning politely — it is always politely — declined.

Though ESPN couldn’t get Manning into the booth three years ago, Pitaro and his team did manage to launch a football-themed documentary series, “Peyton’s Places.” To lure him onto “Monday Night Football” this season, ESPN and Pitaro recognized that Manning preferred a production deal to a talent deal. Omaha Productions, which Manning recently founded, will co-produce the Monday night broadcasts with ESPN and launch a new series of “Peyton’s Places”-inspired shows starring Abby Wambach, David Ortiz and others.

Manning, according to multiple people familiar with his plans, is more interested in following in the footsteps of LeBron James, founder of his own production company, SpringHill, than he is the more the traditional paths followed by Romo and Aikman. In addition to its ESPN deals, Omaha has development deals in place with NBC for a kids’ competition show and another series with Netflix. It’s a good time to be an A-list celebrity with a media company in Hollywood: Reese Witherspoon recently sold her company, Hello Sunshine, to a private equity firm for hundreds of millions of dollars; Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are reportedly in talks to sell their company.

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Viewers will find the Manning broadcast on ESPN2 all season. It will compete directly with ESPN’s main broadcast team of Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese. How many viewers it will pull from that broadcast is an open question, as is whether it will draw any new viewers who wouldn’t already be watching “Monday Night Football.” (The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis reported ESPN is expecting a 3 to 5 percent viewership bump.)

The Manning show might have also been well-suited for streaming platform ESPN Plus, serving as a recruiting effort for new subscribers. It’s unclear, though, whether ESPN has the rights from the NFL for that arrangement. An ESPN spokesman said the network wanted to maximize the audience for the telecast by putting it on cable but declined to discuss the specifics of its rights deal with the NFL. (Monday’s Manning broadcast was simulcast on ESPN Plus.)

For much of the broadcast Monday, the Manning brothers appeared in small boxes on the edge of the screen, leaving the game action to dominate the broadcast. “We don’t want to cheat the viewer,” said Lee Fitting, the executive producer of the telecast. Both brothers were at ESPN’s New York studios, but they were kept in different rooms to keep the presentation consistent with the rest of the season. Fitting said the pandemic would help the production navigate the remote setup.

Throughout the night, both Mannings — never known for their speed — joked about the irony of commenting on Jackson’s running ability. “I would have thrown the ball away three times,” Manning joked after one play. Wilson was a guest down the stretch in the fourth quarter and correctly predicted a big scramble by Jackson on a late drive.

As for what viewers can expect all season, Manning offered a preview of what kind of commentator he will be during a recent appearance with radio host Colin Cowherd.

“I’m going to be hard-pressed to say anything negative,” Manning said, adding, “I’m going to be a quarterback defender, a player defender.”

It fit nicely with Omaha’s self-described mission as a company that “champions hard work, encourages the pursuit of passion, and celebrates community.”

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