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ESPN’s New ‘Monday Night’ Team Hinges On College Football

  • Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler are on deck for ‘Monday Night Football’ booth if college football is delayed or canceled, said sources
  • If not, ESPN will turn to an internal list of top NFL analysts and play-by-play announcers.
Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)
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ESPN’s hire of a new “Monday Night Football” crew to call NFL games is delayed due to an unexpected factor: the currently chaotic state of college football.  

Both ESPN and Fox Sports are slow-walking their hiring decisions on NFL game analysts for the 2020 season until they can get a sense of when and how college football will restart in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If college football’s fall season is delayed or, at worst, canceled, ESPN will likely turn to its top college football broadcast team of analyst Kirk Herbstreit and play-by-play announcer Chris Fowler to call “MNF,” sources tell Front Office Sports. 

On the other hand, if college football kicks off on time this fall, ESPN would likely keep the college duo in their primetime perch on “ABC’s Saturday Night Football” – and pick a new “MNF” team from a shortlist of internal candidates, including Louis Riddick, Dan Orlovsky, Pat McAfee, Steve Levy, Dave Pasch, and Brian Griese.

Fox, meanwhile, would likely tap Joel Klatt, its lead college football game analyst, to fill the No. 2 NFL analyst role alongside play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. Troy Aikman and Joe Buck are the network’s long-time No. 1 team. 

That No. 2 job came open after Fox’s Charles Davis bolted to CBS Sports, where he’ll take over from Dan Fouts as No. 2 game analyst. 

Klatt was named Fox’s top college football analyst before the 2015 season, teaming with play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson. 

This year, he was personally favored by XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck to call the new spring football’s league’s games on Fox with play-by-play partner Curt Menefee.

“You’re talking about some of the most polished booth guys in football, so it feels like a natural transition,” said Bonnie Bernstein, the ex-ESPN and CBS NFL reporter turned founder of Walk Swiftly Productions. “And considering how extensively Chris, Kirk, and Joel have all covered the college game, think they’d add a welcome layer of depth around players’ technical development over the years and their evolution as people.”

READ MORE: Q&A: Paul Finebaum On College Football And If He’ll Stay At ESPN

Besides his successful stint as “College GameDay” analyst, the 50-year old Herbstreit is the darling of both ESPN and parent Walt Disney Co. for his role in saving NFL Draft coverage from usurping Fox Sports.

Stung by Fox’s move into NFL Draft coverage in 2018, Disney answered with its own, proposing both ESPN and sister broadcast network ABC cover the draft in 2019. Herbstreit and Robin Roberts’ more college football-driven draft coverage on ABC was a hit. Outside the league’s own NFL Network, Disney has controlled the draft’s broadcast rights for the past two years. Fox is back on the outside looking in.

“It all hinges on when and if college football comes back,” said a source. “If Herbstreit and Fowler are ESPN’s best football booth, and a lot of execs at ESPN believe they are, why not have them call Monday Night? They call the College Football Playoff National Championship game every year.”

Fowler signed a long-term contract extension in 2014 that will keep him at ESPN through 2023.

Both ESPN and Fox declined to comment on upcoming NFL analyst hires.

As with other significant strategic sports changes, the deadly coronavirus that brought sports to a screeching halt in mid-March is also being blamed for this strategic delay.

Only a year ago, ESPN announced Booger McFarland, Joe Tessitore, and sideline reporter Lisa Salters as its new “MNF” team way back on May 1, 2019.

But The Athletic recently confirmed the incumbent “MNF” team of Booger McFarland and Joe Tessitore will be reassigned to other ESPN duties this season.

With Drew Brees choosing NBC Sports as his future TV home, ESPN has weighed putting Herbstreit/Fowler on “MNF,” according to the New York Post.

But that decision could also spell trouble, warned James Andrew Miller, author of “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN.”

“I think the big, big question that’s always been there is, do they want to rob Peter to pay Paul?,” Miller told Sports Illustrated. “Do they want to mess around with the Chris Fowler-Kirk Herbstreit dynamic on college football? ESPN spent more than $25 billion securing college football rights. They spent $15.3 billion on the last NFL contract.”

READ MORE: Cost-Conscious ESPN Looking Internally For MNF Talent

Still, the 50-year old “MNF” is the granddaddy of all prime-time NFL TV packages. Most sportscasters would love a shot at the broadcast booth once filled by broadcast legends ranging from the late Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford to John Madden and Al Michaels. 

Pasch, who primarily calls college football and basketball for ESPN, confirmed his interest in the MNF play-by-play during a recent Q&A with Front Office Sports.

“I would absolutely love to be considered. It is one of the best jobs in broadcasting,” said Pasch. “There have been so many great announcers who called that game down through the years. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a dream caliber job.”

Fox will kick off its 2020 NFL slate with doubleheader coverage on Sunday, Sep. 13. The highlight game will feature Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints.

ESPN kicks off the 51st season of MNF the following night with a doubleheader featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New York Giants and Tennessee Titans vs. Denver Broncos.

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