Last Friday, ESPN announced that MNF director Jimmy Platt and producer Phil Dean were being swapped out for Derek Mobley and Steve Ackels, respectively.
The move caught the attention of the sports media world given that MNF’s 2022-2023 season was, in large part, considered a successful operation, including the way the broadcast team handled the Damar Hamlin injury. The initial season with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on the call appeared to have all of the pieces in place for ESPN’s eventual Super Bowl coverage in three years.
Speculation regarding whether or not Buck, Aikman, or both had some part in the change picked up this week. The NY Post’s Andrew Marchand touched on the ESPN re-org during this week’s episode of The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast, saying that while the move was not specifically done at Aikman’s request, his feelings were known.
“It’s not fair to say that Troy Aikman or Joe Buck made this change but there was a feeling from people close to the situation that Aikman wanted a different producer,” said Marchand. “He had Richie Zyontz at Fox for years and years, so he was used to it being a certain way. Joe Buck, on the other hand, has had a lot of different producers. Their feelings, especially Aikman’s, were known, especially by the higher-ups at ESPN, but I don’t think…to say ‘they gotta go,’ I don’t think that’s what happened. But they knew what Aikman wanted.”
Marchand wasn’t the only sports media personality to speculate about Buck and Aikman’s involvement.
“There’s no way these kinds of decisions happen without Joe Buck and Troy Aikman signing off,” speculated Richard Deitsch on his podcast Tuesday. “I’m not saying Joe Buck and Troy Aikman somehow dislike the people who are leaving, but management would never make this move, particularly with two guys they brought in to reshape their broadest…they’re not making these moves without those guys signing off and I’m sure those guys signed off on it.”
Despite all of that speculation, ESPN gave Awful Announcing a decidedly firm answer on how the decision was made.
“We can say unequivocally this decision was made solely by me and our management team. Period,” said Stephanie Druley, ESPN Head of Studio and Event Production. “These new assignments best position our overall football coverage for years to come and, to be clear, they were not dictated by any members of our on-air team.”
After Awful Announcing wrote about Marchand’s comments, several people associated with Monday Night Football’s production team independently reached out to share their experience from the previous year and how they felt that the Platt/Dean swap-out was part of an ongoing friction between production crew and talent, with Aikman specifically cited in multiple instances.
“A lot of ESPN technicians feel betrayed by ESPN leadership,” said one longtime MNF crewmember.
The strain between the two sides seems to have started in Week 1.
Early in the fourth quarter of Monday Night Football’s first game of the season, Aikman was attempting to illustrate how Denver Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb beat Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Charles Cross en route to knocking the ball out of quarterback Geno Smith’s hands.
A lone fluorescent squiggle appeared on the TV screen over Chubb but it soon disappeared. Aikman started his explanation but briefly stopped in apparent frustration over a technical issue before telling the ESPN audience that “we got a telestrator that doesn’t work.”
Troy Aikman encounters his first telestrator issue of the night during his ESPN MNF debut. pic.twitter.com/mv3uDTYRIB
— The Comeback NFL (@TheComebackNFL) March 16, 2023
Around 30 minutes later, with the game clock winding down and Russell Wilson attempting a last-gasp comeback drive against his former team, Aikman once again tried to use the telestrator to provide context for a play. Again, his efforts were in vain, leaving him to utter a frustrated “telestrator” while explaining what was happening on the screen.
At the time, social media got a kick out of Aikman’s telestrator drama, with some chastising ESPN’s broadcast crew for not having the tools that the former Fox commentator might need in his MNF debut.
Someone please fix the Telestrator for Aikman! ? Also, teach him about the talkback button.
— Barry Buetel (@Barry_Buetel) September 13, 2022
Aikman is gonna lose it if he doesn’t get a Telestrator.
— Bryan Hayes (@HayesTSN) September 13, 2022
Several sources said that the telestrator incident left a bad taste in people’s mouths behind the scenes, though it was quickly remedied by Platt.
“It all started week one,” said a contractor on the MNF team. “He was dogging the crew and gear on the air when he couldn’t figure his telestrator out. He couldn’t figure it out because he shows up on game day. Didn’t practice. So before halftime, our director had already gotten operations to call someone at Fox, find out exactly what model he used for years prior, and had it shipped in for the next game.”
The sources that spoke with Awful Announcing said that whether Aikman was involved in the leadership change or not, they felt as though there didn’t appear to be any concern for how that decision might impact the rest of the MNF production team.
“It’s a huge bummer,” said the contractor. “What [Aikman] and the suits at ESPN don’t realize is the impact it has downstream on everyone else.”
“I think there is a lot of people who would talk but likely won’t because they fear of a potential target being put on their backs by ESPN,” said another source on the MNF team. “But a lot of those people are so upset.”
The telestrator incident was part of a larger pattern of behavior in the eyes of some on the MNF crew. Unlike previous MNF broadcasting talents, crewmembers felt as though Aikman was not as forthcoming in ingratiating himself into the team. Several sources said he also spent minimal amounts of time in whichever city that week’s game was going to be in, cutting down on opportunities to pre-plan, practice, and interact with the team.
“Troy travels on his private jet on Monday mornings and flies home after the game,” said a source. “He could not be further removed from the crew and I would confidently say that he knows maybe 10 people on a crew of like 150+ people.”
“Never came to a camera meeting. No crew outings. Nothing. You’d think someone who is going into a long-term, big-money contract at a new network would come in and try to make it home. Not at all,” said another source.
A separate source did note that Aikman attended a get-together hosted by a crewmember before the December 12 game between the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, refuting the idea that the commentator hadn’t made an effort to spend time with staffers and technicians.
The MNF crewmembers noted that it was commonplace for previous broadcasters to arrive a day or two before the game, meet with coaches and players, and attend practices. Although they all cited COVID-19 as a reason many of those practices were halted in recent years, they had returned to normal, at least until Aikman arrived.
Crew members also reported that Aikman would frequently “yell at everyone in the truck when he wasn’t getting what he wanted,” further widening the growing rift between the MNF crew and himself. On its own, a heated disagreement in a production truck isn’t especially shocking or novel, but crew members say that it only added to the dissonance between the two sides.
No one that Awful Announcing spoke with directly discussed any animosity between the MNF production crew and Joe Buck, who was described as “great to work with” and said to have spent time with some crewmembers outside of game broadcasts.
The ripple effects of the leadership change won’t just affect MNF but also ESPN’s college football broadcasting team. While all four directors and producers were spoken highly of by those we talked to, there was some confusion about why so many pieces had to be rejiggered.
“The college football system of [Chris] Fowler, [Kirk] Herbstreit, and Holly Rowe is the most well-oiled machine,” said one MNF crewmember. “Why would ESPN leadership completely disrupt that entire ecosystem to just switch directors? Now crews who have been in their lane for 10-15 years could potentially be switched and why? Seems like a dumb decision.”
Sources we spoke with commended Platt, who will now be the director for ESPN’s College Football Playoff National Championship coverage and ABC’s Saturday Night Football, over the way he ran the MNF team and how he handled the move, which some considered a demotion of sorts.
“The biggest thing I’d like to hammer home is how great of a person Jimmy Platt is,” said one MNF crewmember. “He personally called everyone on the crew to let us know that this change had been made, and he couldn’t have been more level-headed about the whole thing. Handled it with the utmost class. I don’t think many people would have handled it as well as he did.”
Aikman reportedly signed a five-year, $90-million deal to leave Fox for ESPN this past offseason, kicking off a football announcer network shuffle that generated discussions about the value of TV broadcasters. After Buck joined him, it presumably gave ESPN the dream booth they wanted, especially with two Super Bowl broadcasts on the horizon. They clearly expect Mobley and Ackels to be the missing pieces to that puzzle.
However, it also sounds like there may still be some growing pains behind the scenes as the entire MNF crew attempts to get on the same page.