Saturday, September 13, 2008

Are you ready for some football?

I don't know who what genius decided to shuffle Monday Night Football over to ESPN but considering the fact that Disney owns both ABC and ESPN I'm pretty sure the culprit was Goofy. ABC took a giant risk when they agreed preempt regular programming to feature on marquee game on Monday night. Prime time. Back in 1970 there was no such thing as basic cable. The Big Three ruled the airwaves and the other two networks had already passed on Rozelle's plan.

MNF proved to be so successful that other networks quickly altered their programming so as not to waste good shows on a losing ratings battle. Monday Night Football was an institution the dramatically increased the NFL's appeal. In the 1980s Monday Night Football was the original must see TV. Some of the most memorable moments in football history occurred during the broadcast. ABC spared no expense. The production quality of the Monday night game was for superior to anything else in sports. The best production team, the most skilled camera men and the most appealing broadcasters were hired to enhance the experience.

Not only that, but Monday Night Football was a boon to the city hosting the game. ABC's crew featured stories about the hosting city, and promoted the culture of the team's community. Monday Night Football had the atmosphere of the Super Bowl. Perhaps not as big, but every bit as exciting.

Mistakes were made. Dennis Miller was not a good fit in the booth and the entire nation witnessed the demise of one of the must enduring sports broadcasters in history. Howard Cosell is remembered for uttering the unfortunate expression "somebody let that little monkey get loose" but his chronic alcohol abuse and erratic behavior led to his dismissal. However, Monday Night Football will be remembered for its best moments, not its worst.

Even though Monday Night Football still exists, the move to ESPN cheapens it. Even though most Americans have hundreds of channels to choose from, the Big Three still matter, which made ABC's sponsorship of Monday Night Football so important. By relegated the broadcast to basic cable Disney effectively destroyed an institution. Now NBC and CBS are happy to attack Monday night with their best shows. That means fewer people are watching Monday Night Football. NBC bought back part of its share of the NFL pie by snapping up a Monday Night game but it's not the same. Monday Night Football was special. It was an event. Now, it's just a game.

ESPN used to be special, but they've over saturated the market with themselves. There are too many channels and there's too much coverage. I enjoyed football more when there was some mystery to it, now there are mobs of former players going to great lengths to demystify the game. As somebody who considers himself a student of the game, I find the endless lectures to be boring and often erroneous. Former coaches are such for a reason and ex-jocks are generally hired for name recognition. They aren't any more credible than any of the millions of fans who have studied the game since they were kids. It's actually a little insulting to have a clown like Howie Long preaching football from on high. So I try not to watch.

Even though my interest in the Sunday games had waned long ago, I still found myself tuning in to MNF. I enjoyed the game. It was Monday, after all...there wasn't much else to do and, until John Madden came along I enjoyed the broadcast team. Dennis Miller was terrible but I loved watching him humiliate himself every week. I loved watching Al Michaels hold back the urge to punch him in the face. Veins bulging on the side of his head, jaw clenched, the uneasy laugh when miller tried to blend an obscure pop culture reference with football. It was gold. Now Dennis Miller's a conservative pundit with a dwindling audience. Who'd have thought Rob Schneider would be the bigger star?

I don't think I've watched a Monday Night game since the move to ESPN. At least not in its entirety. I've seen enough to know that Tony Kornheiser makes Dennis Miller look like Dan Dierdorf which doesn't bode well. I used to like Mike Tirico but he's one of the shills who is always trying to find something meaningful in sports when it's just a bunch of overpaid jocks beating each other senseless. I haven't seen Ron Jaworski's performance on MNF but I'm sure he doesn't stop talking. Which is good because that means less Tony, but it's not like it used to be. And that's too bad.

The NFL is popular enough that it is going to survive this debacle but I don't think I'm alone when I skip Monday Night Football and find something else to watch. Like reruns of House.

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