Michael Phelps ain't a bad swimmer. And Roger Federer and Tiger Woods are two guys with pretty decent swings. In the annals of sports understatement, those are pretty good. But it would be impossible to top this one: At Monday Night Football, they know how to put on a good game.
In fact, MNF, now in its 40th season of gridiron glory, remade the way we watch live sports on television. It is hard to imagine the staid, fixed-camera format and totally game-centric approach to sports coverage that existed on television before Sept. 14, 1970.
But when MNF premiered on ABC, the game became a part of an event, exploring stories on the sidelines and on both sides of the ball. MNF was the first instance of a regularly scheduled major sport in primetime. And it ushered in the era of sports entertainment, now still celebrated in the series' fourth season on ESPN.
Choosing MNF as the first-ever sports series inducted into B&C's Hall of Fame is about as natural as a darting spiral to your best receiver on third and long.
“Monday Night Football begat the notion of sports in America,” says NBC Universal Sports & Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol, who was an assistant to Roone Arledge when the legendary ABC Sports executive created the series. “Roone's vision for what sports on television would be was taking the American viewer to the event. Everything he did was meant to immerse you in it.”
Arledge had two tools for plopping the viewer down into the center of the action. The first was technical; at that time, pro football games broadcast on TV used four or five cameras. MNF used nine, including two handhelds and one that seemed to roam the sidelines, focusing on expressions in the heat of battle.
Arledge's other tool was the personalities he chose to bring fans the action. The chemistry among the longtime, definitive trio of announcers—gruff outsider Howard Cosell, affable ex-quarterback “Dandy” Don Meredith and by-the-playbook insider Frank Gifford—was in many cases more entertaining than the on-field action.
“For most of the time we did it, people thought we were idiots,” Gifford recalls of the one-upmanship in the booth. “We took a lot of abuse. The only thing we could point to was unbelievable ratings that blew people's minds away.”
Which begs another fine sports understatement: Monday Night Football was anything but a lock for “overnight sensation.” Then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle tried to sell the concept to broadcast's biggest players, but CBS and NBC both passed. That left less-than-ideal third choice ABC, and network head Leonard Goldenson. His network had already developed a reputation for less traditional entertainment, and Rozelle soon had a partner in the forward-thinking Arledge, who had produced the seminal series ABC's Wide World of Sports.
“The entertainment people [at ABC] were against it, but Roone convinced Leonard,” Ebersol recalls.
Arguably the most important part of Arledge's concept came with talent. The show was unique in its pairing of bickering bookends Cosell and Meredith.
“Roone had a vision that there was a reason to have rabble-rousing,” Ebersol says. “This was the first time that a big sports event was cast the same way you would cast a Western, with a good guy and a bad guy.”
Gifford was contractually unavailable for the first season—Keith Jackson did play-by-play honors—and came aboard in season two. When that happened, MNF, already a success, became the first sports show to feature water cooler-worthy comments.
“Howard never absorbed the game of football but he was a great creator of facts and minutiae, and that irritated the hell out of people,” Gifford says. “More than anything, he was such a nasal presence on the air, and I did play-by-play and Don would puncture the balloon. In one bar in Denver, every Monday night they would auction off the right to throw a brick through the TV when Cosell came on. But the three of us got along great.”
In its heyday, the show was a cameo stop for pop culture royals from John Lennon to Ronald Reagan to Kermit the Frog; it was also, sadly, the place many people heard that Lennon had been killed in 1980. Meanwhile, the games featured moments both incredibly stirring (the Miami Dolphins ending the Chicago Bears' perfect 1985 season) and incredibly nauseating (Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's broken leg in a game against the New York Giants).
It has, in the ensuing years, continued to make news through a fascinating revolving door of commentators, ranging from the sublime (Al Michaels' pairing with John Madden from 2002-05) to the ridiculous (Dennis Miller's wild reference patter from 2000-01, which included lines such as, “When the hell is Warren Moon going to retire? I mean, this guy is older than the cuneiform in Nebuchadnezzar's tomb”).
The game moved to ESPN at the start of the 2006 season, where it has remained a ratings standout. “There aren't that many television properties that continue to prosper four decades later, but it's gutting any distinction between broadcast and cable,” says George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports. With Mike Tirico anchoring the HD spectacle, ESPN brings a continuity to the proceeding as deeply etched as Hank Williams Jr.'s “All My Rowdy Friends” theme song.
“For ESPN to continue ABC Sports' legacy of Monday Night Football is an honor, and our people and our company treat it as such,” Bodenheimer says.
“If you do something really well, everyone copies it, and so many things that Monday Night Football did first, people said, that's great, we might as well steal that,” adds Michaels, the show's play-by-play announcer from 1986-2005. “No show had the impact it did and still does historically.”
So you might say Monday Night Football has done OK for itself in 40 years. Oh, yeah—and that Usain Bolt guy is pretty fast.—Robert Edelstein
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