The news that Hank Williams Jr. and ESPN have parted ways — quit? fired? who cares? — reverberated throughout the sports world last week.
No, wait, it didn’t. It generated a flurry of media attention for a day or two — rehashing the remark, the requisite apology, then the final kerfuffle — but the absence of Williams is the least of the problems of “Monday Night Football.”
I was 10 when “Monday Night Football” first aired on ABC. (For years, we got only NBC and CBS, but by 1970, we were able to tune in to all three networks. Those were heady years: three channels! And this was before remote controls were invented, so I was the remote control, as in “Trac, change the channel!”)
I probably didn’t see an entire Monday night game until I was in college, because of my enforced bedtime. Even with an 8 p.m. start in the Central Time Zone, the games ended too late. But I watched enough to know that it was a special production; it didn’t look or sound like the Sunday telecasts I saw.
These days, I can take it or leave it, and most Mondays, I leave it. That has nothing to do with Williams and more to do with my now-voluntary bedtime and the singularly unexciting trio in the booth.
Mike Tirico, although often humorless, is a pro as a play-by-play announcer. But Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski force me to hit the mute button all too often. First, I often can’t tell their voices apart — that may be a problem only I have — and I have to wait for them to utter one of their “catchphrases” before I can tell who’s talking. With Gruden, it’s “guy”; with Jaworski, it’s “National Football League.” I’m sure there’s a drinking game in there somewhere, but that would just speed up my bedtime even more, so I won’t attempt it.
Jaworski is great on his own, when he’s breaking down film. He’s great on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show, on “PTI,” and a billion other places on ESPN. And he might be great in the booth as the lone color guy. The same might even be true of Gruden. But the truth is, three guys may be one too many.
The Sunday night crew on NBC, on the other hand, is two guys — Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth — and that’s just the right number. Throw in Michele Tafoya from the sideline and you’ve got the perfect crew.
You can measure the talent in the booth by whether you’ll want to stick with them even during a bad game. That was certainly true in the early days of “Monday Night Football,” when Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford made it a delightful experience. These days, I’d change the channel so fast it would make the booth spin, even if I had to do it manually, like the old days.
Michaels and Collinsworth have one great advantage that the ESPN cast doesn’t: Theydon’t have to suffer through as many bad matchups. NBC has the distinct advantage of flexible scheduling. In the last seven weeks of the season, games are moved from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night if they have a bearing on the playoffs, which means the Peacock gets no duds. (This year, because Christmas falls on a Sunday, flex scheduling will start in Week 10 and skip Week 16.)
ESPN, of course, will never have that. Teams and fans alike wouldn’t put up with games being moved from a Sunday afternoon to a Monday night. The logistics alone would be impossible. So it has to hope for some help from the scheduling gods.
Otherwise, it’s a level playing field — and NBC is clearly winning. ESPN may spend a lot of time and energy finding a replacement for Williams’s opening number (which is overproduced and overwrought, as is Faith Hill’s presentation on NBC.) But the World Wide Leader would do better to spend less time and money on the bells and whistles of the intro and instead find a better mix in the booth. It’s possible that with broadcast teams as well as pregame histrionics, less is more.