This past weekend, the retooled 4.0 ESPN Monday Night Football booth had their biggest test to date airing the network’s sole NFL playoff game. The game delivered an exciting contest, and a big rating, as the Texans came back from a 16-point deficit to win in overtime. It was the type of game ESPN desperately needed after rejoining the NFL’s playoff rotation and suffering through five years that only provided the network with only one game that had a single digit margin of victory (the average of those five years being a tick under 14 points…. not exactly the compelling action to move the needle ratings-wise).
The quality of game wasn’t just pivotal to draw ratings but also to provide a conducive game for the announcing booth to wrap the season on a high note after a rocky rookie (kind of) year together. While this year’s MNF booth of Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland had seemingly drawn less criticism than its predecessor (which featured Jason Witten in the booth with Tessitore and McFarland in the infamous Booger Mobile for the majority of last season), fans sharpened their criticism as the season went on. Initially appeased with the addition by subtraction of Witten’s return to the Dallas Cowboys, the honeymoon was short-lived, and soon enough, fans and media pundits were calling for yet another shakeup.
With speculation again ramping up heading into the offseason, the booth (and in particular McFarland) experienced one their most high-profile patches of clunkiness capped by a cringeworthy moment in which McFarland called for a draw play and a spike in the final seconds of Saturday’s AFC wil card game. Such action would have potentially seen the clock run out in the game, but more egregiously, it would have resulted in a turnover on downs for the Bills. It was a egregious gaffe at the game’s most pivotal moment, and one that seemed to lend more credence to the belief that ESPN would once again need to revamp the announcing booth of their most-prized sports property.
ESPN unable to find a long term solution
Joe Buck and Troy Aikman have been Fox’s A team since 2002, although it should noted that the first few years included Cris Collinsworth in a three-man booth. Next month, the Buck-Aikman pairing will call their 5th Super Bowl (their 6th together with one previous one done with Collinsworth). While the pair has endured some criticism (as does any booth), it is very plausible that they could end up doing a quarter century of games together as Fox’s lead announcing team.
While NBC and and CBS don’t exactly equal up there in terms of booth longevity, they too have largely navigated themselves towards having similar consistency in the announcing booth. CBS tapped Jim Nantz as their A team play by play announcer in 2004 where he joined Phil Simms, the legacy color announcer. Simms was swapped out in 2017 in favor of Tony Romo, a move that many believe vaulted CBS’s broadcast from worst to either first or second among the four networks’ lead announcing booths. Similar to Fox with Aikman and Buck, it’s not hard to see CBS getting another decade out of Romo and Nantz, which would mean that between Fox and CBS, there could be a 25-year stretch where only one change (Romo in for Simms) was made by the two networks.
John Madden retired in 2009, which saw Cris Collinsworth elevated to work with Al Michaels on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Since that move, NBC has generally solicited the least amount of criticism, with the only speculation being ‘When will Al Michaels step away?’ The question of when Michaels may retire looms large, but the answer of who will replace him does not; NBC proactively hired Mike Tirico away from ESPN in 2016, with Michaels’ succession chiefly in mind.
While that succession has not taken place yet, Tirico’s unexpected departure gashed a talent hole in ESPN’s massive hull across multiple sports Tirico called. Below is a breakdown of ESPN’s MNF announcing booth since acquiring the property, which illustrates the limbo they’ve been in since Tirico’s departure.
MNF moved to ESPN in 2006, and by year four, it was already in it’s third attempt at getting the announcing booth right when it brought in Jon Gruden. Despite the early booth turmoil, Tirico was generally well-received and was seemingly the the broadcaster ESPN was eager to build around. Gruden’s addition seemed to set up ESPN for long-term success; ESPN went three solid years having a three man booth of Tirico, Gruden, and Jaworski before opting to slim down the booth by removing Jaworski (there is some debate on if this was to showcase Gruden more or because some couldn’t tell the difference between their voices at times).
Four more consistent years followed and it seemed ESPN had what they wanted…..a drama-free, well-liked, long-term solution. And then it happened.- Tirico moved on and the rotating door hasn’t stopped turning. ESPN elevated Sean McDonough from calling college games and while it wasn’t overtly objectionable, the consensus was that it was a noticeable downgrade.
Gruden’s unexpected return to the NFL saw ESPN start from scratch bringing over Joe Tessitore from calling college games, hiring the recently-retired Jason Witten, and adding Booger McFarland, who would spend the majority of his first season not in the booth and not on the field, but hovering over the field in an awkward crane. The booth was universally panned with the majority of the criticism aimed at Witten who found a soft landing by leaving and returning to the Cowboys. Ahead of the 2019 season, ESPN kicked the tires on trying to add Peyton Manning, but inevitably opted to bring back Tessitore and give McFarland a full season in the booth.
Bad games and snowballing criticism
I spoke with a few people involved with NFL production to get their read on how the last year went for ESPN and what their options might be. The feedback I got tracked with a lot of my personal thoughts and a lot of the public feedback out there.
My initial takeaway early in the year was that the booth was an improvement with Witten’s departure, but Tessitore and McFarland were going to have to make a lot of progress in a short period of time before criticism for the pairing began to fester.
How are we feeling about the Witten-less, Tess and Booger MNF booth after a half tonight? Responses and/or a vote in our simple stupid poll appreciated
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) September 10, 2019
While being better than the year before was a bit of a low bar, it became apparent early on that non competitive games would be problematic. The pair was just a bit awkward, lacking fluidity, and flat when it came to filibustering blowout games where the game action didn’t give them much to work with.
After their week one debut (when the first poll was taken), Tessitore and McFarland endured an eight-game stretch in which they only called one game that was decided by one score. And that was with an average margin of victory being a tick under 20, not great for holding viewers late on a weeknight. Unlike uncompetitive games on Sunday afternoon games, MNF isn’t afforded the luxury of studio updates from other games where they get breaks on the air for other highlights and then are able to discuss the most recent developments elsewhere. You’re stuck with the game you’re calling, the network can’t switch to another, and the viewer doesn’t have another game they can flip to.
It’s like a road trip with your parents. You’re just stuck and dependent on the booth making the broadcast compelling enough to stay with. Compounding things further was that none of these games featured two teams that would make the playoffs this season, and five of eight games showcased no playoff teams whatsoever (perhaps part of the reason ESPN has struggled to attract and retain top talent to MNF).
Somewhere during that stretch, the honeymoon of Witten’s removal ended. Tessitore’s canned enthusiasm became predictable and began to wore thin and McFarland was struggling to fill the entire broadcast, now shouldering all of the color analysis in mostly unforgettable games. There were pauses, conversations that were dead ends, analysis that wasn’t well-reasoned, plenty of gaffes, and analysis that was often mocked on Twitter for being obvious to any football fan but presented as much more than that.
By Thanksgiving, our poll of all fourteen NFL announcing booths had Monday Night Football dead last and by a troubling margin. Our MNF specific polls (and yes these are 100% unscientific and should be taken with a grain of salt) painted an even more troubling picture.
Second- if you’d like to see changes to the booth, what is your ideal outcome.
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) December 24, 2019
“They were all put in a position to fail”
In an effort to get some insight into just how MNF now finds itself in such a precarious place and where do they go from here, I spoke to a few people with experience with NFL production. Below are some takeaways from those conversations.
– On the initial booth of Tessitore and Witten with McFarland in the Booger in the crane, all seemed to agree ESPN only swung for the fences because CBS had hit such a home run with Tony Romo. People were quick to point out though that Romo was paired with a veteran with Nantz, and that putting all three individuals in new roles was “a recipe for disaster”.
– The group was split on the Booger Mobile. A couple thought it made some level of sense as they wanted the booth to have someone closer to the action and a personality to tag in when the booth needed some added personality and analysis. The idea being that Booger would be an asset that would be helpful for a rookie booth. Others thought it was a “longshot gimmick” that only further complicated the dynamics of an already not ideal setup.
– There was also a consensus that ESPN was “extremely misguided” not only going with an announcing team with minimal to no experience in a booth, but more so that their previous experience and history was outside of covering the NFL. Tessitore had excelled in calling college games and boxing while McFarland had been primarily focused on studio work covering college football and specifically the SEC. Said one executive, “They were all put in a position to fail and then seemed shocked when it did.”
– On the decision to give McFarland a second year, there was a strong consensus that while it cannot be seen as a success, many saw the case for Booger getting a full year in the booth. “ESPN thinks Booger is a star and they may be right there, but I’m not sure that it will happen in the booth. You had him in a crane for a year with Witten poisoning the public reception. You could say he was owed the opportunity, especially considering they didn’t have many cards to play at that point.”
– While retracing how ESPN landed in such a precarious position was illuminating, those conversations all led to the same place. All agreed the booth could not return as is and changes would have to be made in some form. “I don’t think they can do a second or third year or whatever. Even if they improved, enough people have made their minds up and they don’t want the distraction again.”
– The other thing that stood out was all involved pointed to the MNF booth as being purely a PR optics problem. “There isn’t anybody who decides to watch MNF based on who the announcers are. Sure people could mute or just complain on Twitter, but they are still going to watch. It doesn’t affect the bottom line in any way, so it’s more of a tolerance for bad press and if the league ever says anything about it.” It should be noted MNF’s ratings were up 8%, and that they saw a rise for the second year in a row, despite all of the criticism about the booth.
Moving parts and no low hanging fruit
Online sportsbooks have already put up odds for MNF announcers for next year and in an ominous sign, most of these listed odds do not list Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland as options. While the pair could very well return either as a pair or individually, there seems to be some momentum that change is coming. So how will ESPN approach this, given that there are a ton of moving parts to think about?
Below we look at some options based on the likeliness ESPN will pursue but not on how likely they are to materialize (we’ll make a general note on plausibility after each).
Peyton Manning- (15%)
ESPN tried again last year and it didn’t happen again, ESPN will obviously make this overture again and while many are skeptical, working in it’s favor this year is that ESPN now has a working relationship with Manning on his show Peyton’s Places on ESPN+. Perhaps ESPN thinks working with him on that show has/can/will warm him up to the idea of moving into the booth. While many strongly believe Manning would be great as a lead analyst, there are is a very strong consensus that he’s not interested and prefers life hocking products, doing corporate events, and being involved in various business deals. Peyton’s Places is a much lower-stakes media venture which he has a lot more control of opposed to a live broadcast in front of millions where one gaffe could have you trending on Twitter.
Most believe Manning just doesn’t see any upside to a career in the announcing booth and, if anything, would only be interested in NFL ownership down the road. Others believe that Manning would give MNF a hard look when his brother moves on from the league (so like basically now and he wouldn’t have to call one of his brother’s games). Additionally, many believe he’d give MNF more of a look if ESPN could somehow bring back Mike Tirico, who Manning would be more comfortable with.
Tony Romo- (25%)
Just write Romo a blank check, CBS, and let him fill in the number.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) January 5, 2020
These whispers have been around awhile, as Romo’s initial CBS deal is in its final year. There are whispers that ESPN is eyeing Romo’s producer at CBS and that a move to ESPN would benefit his golfing ambitions. The other side here is that he’s extremely comfortable at CBS and specifically with Jim Nantz as his partner, Moving to ESPN perhaps would see him move out of the Super Bowl rotation, and lose two key playoff games as well. While many believe ESPN is just being used as leverage to make CBS match a big number, there is some concern at CBS that ESPN might be desperate/crazy enough to make Romo an unprecedented offer and one that could let CBS move on from Romo. I think it’s pretty unlikely, but it all tracks back to just how much ESPN is willing to pay for extinguishing this lingering bad news-cycle.
Mike Tirico (15%)
Best play by play announcer out of today’s NFL games?
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) November 29, 2019
Tirico left four years ago, but could ESPN somehow facilitate his return? Tirico’s move to NBC was motivated by three things with them being 1) money, 2) working less, 3) positioning himself to call Super Bowls in the near future. ESPN could easily make an overture that addresses Tirico’s workload as well as pay, but would Tirico want to give up his spot as Michaels’ successor at NBC?
Many assumed that given Michaels age (75) that perhaps we’d be seeing signs of him slowing down like other announcers tend to do at such an old age and perhaps a succession plan would begin to formalize behind the scenes. NBC does have the Super Bowl next season, which seems like a very plausible point in time for Michaels to potentially retire. That said, I’m not sure Michaels or NBC is ready to turn the page just yet and many believe Michaels may want to stick around a handful more years.
With no clarity on the timing of Michaels retirement, perhaps with ABC/ESPN believed to be likely to enter the Super Bowl rotation in the next TV deal, Tirico may find the quickest path to calling a Super Bowl back at his former employer. It’s probably a longshot, and one further complicated by Tirico’s current contract but regardless many believe ESPN will be aggressive in courting Tirico, regardless of if he has legitimate interest in returning.
Drew Brees (15%)
The color analyst position seems to be the more pressing need for ESPN. So if Manning and Romo are out of play, where do you go? Yes, one would be quick to point out that Brees has never called a game and could likely play another year or two in the NFL. That said, many believe he absolutely has the intangibles to be a great color analyst and that stepping into the lead MNF role now could financially make sense given he could have that high-paying job for a few decades.
Should Brees play a few years and the MNF role is solidified by someone else, all four of the A announcing booths would be more or less spoken for, and the amount Brees would be able to command for a studio or secondary announcing booth would be a fraction of what he could make doing MNF. A few folks told me that Brees will most assuredly get a strong pitch from a few networks this offseason and it is very plausible he could consider walking early like Romo did a few years ago.
Steve Levy (25%)
I’m not as sold that Joe Tessitore will not return next year to the booth. In fact, I think it’s probably a coin-flip. But should ESPN opt to go in another direction, media pundits have included nearly a dozen names as possible replacements for Tessitore. While I see the cases for a lot of those proposed candidates I’m of the strong belief that unless ESPN brings in announcer from another network, the only real candidate internally to replace Tessitore would be Levy.
What I think sets Levy apart is his vast experience on SportsCenter, which would come in handy in blowout games where the broadcast booth has to get creative and filibuster. He’s made the transition to calling college games fairly seamlessly and seems to just be a bit more of a comprehensive option than other internal ESPN candidates. Plus, he called the second opening MNF game this past season and drew mostly positive reviews and thus he seems like the internal candidate of choice if ESPN feels the need to make a move on the play by play side.
Kurt Warner (25%)
Believed to have been in play the last two seasons, ESPN has twice now opted to go in another direction each time. Warner feels like the most obvious safe option and perhaps ESPN opts to go in that direction this time around. That said, it feels like ESPN has been swinging for the fences (and missing) in search of a Romo-like hire. Warner maybe deemed too much of a bloop single for their liking, despite many believing it’s a significant upgrade.
Ian Eagle (10%)
Again, I think ESPN has confidence that they can address their play-by-play announcer needs internally should they move on from Tessitore and if Tirico is not available. That said, Eagle is someone who could get some consideration; he’s a NFL announcing veteran who is generally well-liked and could also add value calling basketball. If ESPN opts to go after experience calling NFL games, this is probably where they would turn.
Louis Riddick (20%)
In other news, yesterday HAD to end the Booger (and Tess) experiment, right? It's colossally embarrassing for ESPN, with all its resources — and guys like Louis Riddick sitting there on their staff — to continue to sully a premium asset with an utterly unqualified analyst.
— AG (@AndyGlockner) January 5, 2020
Similar to Warner, Riddick’s name has been out there the past two seasons. Many fans love him in studio and find him to be an extremely sharp and eloquent football mind. I think similar to Warner though, ESPN is hoping to get a Gruden-esque presence and may not believe Riddick is someone whose personality can entertain and retain viewers in non-competitive games. I think he may be more likely in a three man booth.
Brad Nessler (5%)
ESPN is rumored to be trying to acquire CBS’s remaining three years left on their SEC contract. Such a move could make Brad Nessler an option, although I imagine a) CBS would at least want one final year of SEC football before handing over to ESPN b) Nessler would prefer to stay on calling SEC games. That said, this would give ESPN another in-house option, and one that has a history of calling NFL games.
Jon Gruden (N/A now but down the road?)
Hear me out here. ESPN has two more years on their current Monday night deal. It’s believed that sometime between now and then, new deals will be struck for all networks and that such a deal may see ESPN/ABC having two games a week instead of one. Hence, ESPN would need a second announcing booth. Could we perhaps see ESPN fumble around for another year or so with their MNF booth while Gruden has a pair of 4-12 seasons in Las Vegas? If so, ESPN could perhaps demote whatever lackluster MNF booth to the lesser package they acquire, and Gruden perhaps could return. It seems crazy, but ABC/ESPN adding more NFL games and the Raiders not making the playoffs both don’t exactly scream unlikely in the near future.
Tier 5 (We’ll limit this to just color analysts)
This is a long list of options under 10% that we’ll skim the top of and won’t get into much but includes:
What will shake out?
I’ve asked this to a lot of people in the industry and have yet to hear a duplicate answer. It’s wide open. I think the options for the play by play option are a lot more set than people are speculating. Tessitore is very much in the mix, with Tirico and Levy viable options.
On the analyst front, I don’t see Booger returning unless it’s a three-man booth. What I think would prove to be disastrous is if ESPN strikes out in convincing Romo, Manning, or Brees to take the job, which is a very realistic possibility. Should any of those guys take the plunge, it seems unlikely Booger would come back. But he’d likely find a soft landing as a premier studio personality as almost everyone I spoke to in addition to our internal staff made comments that whatever negative thoughts they had for Booger during the game went away when they’d often see him doing an appearance on Sportscenter minutes later where he seemed much more natural.
Should ESPN strikeout on the Big 3 QBs, I’d probably wager we could see something like a Steve Levy, Kurt Warner, and TBD wildcard booth. That would allow them to hedge a bit and perhaps stall a bit until some of the tier one or two options opened up. That type of booth would seem like an upgrade and also provide them some options and flexibility should ESPN/ABC need a second announcing team under a new TV deal. Either way, this is probably the most-scrutinized and highest-stakes announcing dilemma ESPN has had to deal with this century. It’s somewhat of an unprecedented situation where so many top-tier options are leaning away from one of the most-prized jobs in all of sports media. ESPN’s third try at stopping the bleeding here may not effect ESPN’s bottom line much but certainly will have significant implications for the brand’s reputation as well as the tenure of President Jimmy Pitaro.