NFL TV Preview: ESPN Debuts New ‘Monday Night Football’ Crew

    • NBC's Mike Tirico will fill in during some "bye" weeks for Al Michaels.
    • CBS' Tony Romo is the highest-paid sportscaster in history.

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This NFL offseason saw the most competitive bidding war for on-screen television talent since the days of John Madden.

With Tony Romo’s initial contract expiring at CBS Sports, ESPN pursued the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback to become their lead “Monday Night Football” analyst.

But the 40-year-old Romo chose to stay with CBS, signing a $100 million contract extension that will make him the richest sportscaster in TV history. At $17 million a year, Romo’s new deal represents a 467% increase in annual salary from his original $3 million-a-year pact.

With Peyton Manning again turning down TV feelers, ESPN looked internally to create a new “Monday Night Football” booth. The network named Louis Riddick and Brian Griese as color analysts and Steve Levy as its play-by-play announcer.

It also brought back Lisa Salters and John Parry as sideline reporter and officiating analyst, respectively. Last year’s “Monday Night Football” duo of Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland were reassigned to other duties.

The competing strategies of these networks are taking place against the looming backdrop of billion-dollar NFL media rights negotiations.

The networks collectively pay over $5 billion a year for rights to televise NFL games. The NFL’s deal with ESPN expires after the 2021 season while the league’s contracts with CBS, Fox Sports and NBC Sports are up after the 2022 season.

The NFL insists on the best — TV partners know they must have A-list talent in front of and behind the camera if they want to retain their rights in coming years.  

Here’s a scouting report on the various NFL announce teams this season. Commentator teams are broken down by Play-by-Play Announcer / Game Analyst / Sideline Reporter / Rules and/or Officiating Analyst: 

ESPN: After swinging and missing on Romo, a cost-conscious ESPN turned to its own internal talent during the coronavirus pandemic.

Riddick was due. He narrowly missed out on the job to McFarland a few years back. Levy, the longtime “SportsCenter” anchor has smartly reinvented himself as a play-by-play announcer. Griese is a pro who has called the second half of “Monday Night Football” doubleheaders previous seasons. The veteran Salters should steady the ship. Plus, Parry should be more comfortable in his second year on the job.

ESPN’s new booth could also be a stopgap strategy. The network could still swoop in and hire Manning if “Monday Night Football” returns to broadcast TV on sister Disney network ABC in 2022. Or if Disney lands two separate game packages for ESPN and ABC. 

It also allows Disney/ESPN to keep their options open for any retiring NFL quarterback looking to be the “next Romo,” like Philip Rivers of the Indianapolis Colts.    

ESPN Game Team: ESPN’s new “Monday Night Football” commentator team of Riddick, Griese, Levy, Salters and Parry make their debut Sept. 14. The group will call the Tennessee Titans at the Denver Broncos: the second game of ESPN’s Week 1 doubleheader.

ESPN will be the only NFL TV network with a three-person booth as their No. 1 team this season. The old “Monday Night Football” team of Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford became sports legends. But more recent three-person booths at ESPN have crashed and burned.

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Those ill-fated TV trios include: Jason Witten, McFarland (on his movable “BoogerMobile” crane) and Tessitore in 2018; Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski and Mike Tirico from 2009-2011; and Tony Kornheiser, Jaworski and Tirico from 2006-2008. We’ll see how the new team fares this season:  

  1. Play-by-Play: Steve Levy / Game Analysts: Louis Riddick-Brian Griese/ Sideline Reporter: Lisa Salters / Officiating Analyst: John Parry

ESPN Pregame Shows: ESPN typically adds and subtracts multiple talents on its pregame shows. But there won’t be any major changes except for Riddick and McFarland effectively swapping jobs. 

Riddick goes to the “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth from the “Monday Night Countdown” pregame show. McFarland will do the opposite. 

Sunday NFL Countdown: Samantha Ponder returns for her fourth year as host. She’ll be joined by analysts Randy Moss, Tedy Bruschi, Matt Hasselbeck and Rex Ryan, plus NFL Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen.

Monday Night Countdown: Suzy Kolber is back for her fourth year as host. She’ll host the halftime and postgame segments from ESPN’s new rooftop studio in New York City. McFarland effectively replaces Riddick. They’ll be joined by Moss, Steve Young and Matt Hasselbeck, plus Schefter.

The “Monday Night Countdown” crew typically travels to the site of the game. But due to the pandemic, they’ll stay in New York with the exception of the San Francisco-based Young who will travel to most games.

Wild Card: We’ll find out if there are, again, too many voices in the “Monday Night Football” booth this year.  

Key Behind-The-Scenes Players: Showrunner Phil Dean was named producer of “Monday Night Football” in April, becoming just the seventh producer in the show’s 51-year history. Steve Ackels becomes the show’s new senior coordinating producer. He adds “Monday Night Football” to his college football duties.

FOX SPORTS: Fox is an NFL powerhouse, controlling the NFC game package. The network’s late Sunday afternoon game window has ranked as the No. 1 TV show for 11 straight years. “Fox NFL Sunday” has ranked as the No. 1 pregame show in its time slot for 26 years. 

Fox also has “Thursday Night Football,” making it the only NFL TV partner with two separate game packages.

Fox Game Teams: Play-by-play announcer, color analyst Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, sideline reporter Erin Andrews and rules analyst Mike Pereira return as No. 1 team. 

This will be Buck and Aikman’s 19th year together in the booth, making them the longest-tenured NFL game duo on the air. But Fox yanked Thom Brennaman off his NFL game duties after he was caught on a hot mic saying an anti-gay slur on the air during a Cincinnati Reds game. The network also recruited newcomers Adam Amin and Jonathan Vilma from ESPN:

  1. Play-by-Play: Joe Buck / Game Analyst: Troy Aikman / Sideline Reporter: Erin Andrews / Rules Analyst: Mike Pereira (Sundays)
  2. PxP: Joe Buck / Analyst: Troy Aikman / SR: Kristinia Pink/ RA: Mike Pereira (“Thursday Night Football”)
  3. PxP: Kevin Burkhardt / Analyst: Daryl Johnston / SR: Pam Oliver (Sundays)
  4. PxP Adam Amin / Analyst: Mark Schlereth / SR: Lindsay Czarniak (Sundays)
  5. PxP: Kenny Albert / Analyst: Jonathan Vilma / SR: Shannon Spake (Sundays)
  6. PxP: Kevin Kugler / Game Analyst: Chris Spielman / SR: Laura Okmin (Sundays)
  7. PxP: Chris Myers /  Analysts: Greg Jennings-Brock Huard / SR: Jennifer Hale (Sundays)

Additional Play-by-Play Announcers: Tim Brando, Dick Stockton, Joe Davis, and Brandon Gaudin. 

Additional Game Analysts: Brady Quinn, Matt Millen and Robert Smith. 

Additional Sideline Reporters: Megan Olivi, Sarah Kustok, Sara Walsh.

Fox Deportes:

  1. Play-by-Play: Adrian Garcia Marquez / Game Analyst: Rolando Cantu/ Sideline Reporter: Jaime Motta

Fox NFL Pregame Shows: The entire cast of the top-rated “Fox NFL Sunday” is back. 

Terry Bradshaw and Curt Menefee will co-host. Howie Long, Michael Strahan and Jimmy Johnson return as analysts —the 77-year old Johnson will work remotely. Jay Glazer will be back too as an NFL Insider.

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Airing an hour before “Fox NFL Sunday,” Charissa Thompson again hosts “Fox NFL Kickoff” at 11 a.m. ET with Michael Vick, Tony Gonzalez, Dave Wannstedt, Colin Cowherd and Cooper Manning.

The “Fox NFL Thursday” pregame show, meanwhile, will co-star Bradshaw, Menefee and Gonzalez, with Strahan, Long and Glazer chipping in remotely.  

Wild Card: It will be interesting to track the rating impact from Tom Brady’s move to the NFC with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Fox will air as many Brady games as possible, starting with his Week 1 matchup against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints Sep. 13 (4:25 p.m. ET). Fox will also show Brady’s Bucs on “Thursday Night Football” in Week 5 vs. the Chicago Bears, then vs. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the late Sunday afternoon game window of Week 6.

Key Behind-The-Scenes Player: Brad Zager, executive producer and executive vice president/head of production & operations. Zager has been growing in power since taking over live event production and pre and post-game shows from John Entz in early 2019. He reports directly to Mark Silverman, president of National Networks.

CBS SPORTS: CBS controls the AFC game package. The network’s late Sunday afternoon game window is one of the most-watched shows on TV. The Tiffany Network is set to televise Super Bowl LV from Tampa on Feb. 7, 2021.

CBS Game Teams: CBS was at the center of the biggest off-season drama as ESPN tried to pry Romo away from the network’s No. 1 announce team with Jim Nantz and Tracy Wolfson. But Romo re-upped with CBS in a deal that will pay him an estimated $17 million a year

With the Romo sweepstakes finally over, CBS recruited Charles Davis from Fox to serve as its No. 2 game analyst, succeeding Dan Fouts. CBS also created two new broadcast teams, pairing Kevin Harlan with Trent Green and Melanie Collins and Greg Gumbel with Rich Gannon:

  1. PxP: Jim Nantz / Game Analyst: Tony Romo / Sideline Reporter: Tracy Wolfson
  2. PxP: Ian Eagle / Analyst: Charles Davis / SR: Evan Washburn
  3. PxP: Kevin Harlan / Analyst: Trent Green / SR: Melanie Collins
  4. PxP: Greg Gumbel / Analyst: Rich Gannon
  5. PxP: Andrew Catalon / Analyst: James Lofton
  6. PxP: Spero Dedes / Analyst: Adam Archuleta
  7. PxP: Tom McCarthy / Analyst: Jay Feely
  8. PxP: Beth Mowins / Analyst: Tiki Barber.

CBS Pregame Show: The cast of James Brown, Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher, and Nate Burleson on “The NFL Today” will be back for their fourth year together. Jason La Canfora and Gene Steratore will reprise their respective roles as NFL Insider and Rules Analyst.

Wild Card: While CBS’ AFC TV markets are smaller than Fox’s NFC markets, the network was gifted by the football gods by having AFC stars Brady and Manning battle it out for two decades. CBS’ run of good luck continues with arguably the NFL’s two current biggest stars — Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and reigning MVP Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens — playing in the AFC. 

Key Behind-The-Scenes Players: Jim Rikhoff, lead game producer for “The NFL on CBS” and Michael Arnold, lead game director. Rikhoff is close friends with Romo. He and Nantz quickly mentored the rookie broadcaster into one of TV’s best game analysts.

NBC SPORTS: The Peacock network might be in the strongest position of any NFL media partner. NBC’s experienced team of Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya have worked together since 2011.  

“Sunday Night Football” has ranked as the No. 1 show in prime time a record nine straight years, beating “American Idol” (six years), “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers” and “All in the Family” (five years) and “Gunsmoke” (four years).

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But the winds of changes are blowing at NBC too. To cut down on his cross-country travel, the 75-year old Michaels will take some “bye” weeks off this season. Starting Week 3, heir apparent Mike Tirico will fill in for Michaels during some telecasts this season.

NBC Game Team: Play-by-Play: Al Michaels-Mike Tirico / Game Analyst: Cris Collinsworth / Sideline Reporter: Michele Tafoya / Rules Analyst: Terry McAulay

NBC Pregame Show: Jac Collinsworth makes his debut on “Football Night in America” this season. Tirico, Tony Dungy, Rodney Harrison, Chris Simms, Mike Florio and Liam McHugh are all back this year.

Wild Card: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is expected to join NBC Sports when he retires from the NFL next year, according to the New York Post. Will Tirico and Brees succeed Michaels and Collinsworth sooner rather than later — creating a new NBC team of Tirico-Brees-Tafoya?

Key Behind-the-Scenes Players: Executive producer Fred Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff have been with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” since its start in 2006. Tirico will call one of NBC’s two Wild Card playoff telecasts this season, according to Gaudelli.

NFL NETWORK: For the first time since 2006, Hall of Famer Deion Sanders won’t be an NFL Network contributor. Sanders exited in August for a gig at Barstool Sports after his contract with NFL Network expired. Dan Hellie, who hosted multiple studio shows since he joined the network in 2013, also won’t return as his contract expired in the offseason. MJ Acosta-Ruiz is the new host of “NFL Total Access.”

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NFL Network will have the first three “Thursday Night Football” games (Bengals vs. Browns in Week 2, Dolphins vs. Jaguars in Week 3 and Broncos vs. Jets in Week 4) before Fox (and Amazon Prime) get into the action to broadcast 11 “Thursday Night Football” games. Those games will be simulcast on NFL Network. 

NFL Network Pregame Show: Rich Eisen, who joined NFL Network just before its 2003 launch, is back as host of “NFL GameDay Morning.” Analysts Steve Mariucci, Kurt Warner, Michael Irvin, reporter Ian Rapoport and analytics expert Cynthia Frelund return as well, but they will contribute in a much different way. Eisen will be the only part of the team that will be in the studio regularly as the others will use camera setups from home each week. 

NFL Network TNF Pregame/Postgame Shows: Colleen Wolfe will again host the “Thursday Night Football” pregame show with former pros Irvin, Steve Smith Sr. and Joe Thomas, although there will be no “road show” this season as result of the pandemic. There also won’t be Sanders. Wolfe will be in the studio from Los Angeles as Irvin, Smith and Thomas will contribute remotely. 

Wild Card: This is the third season of the so-called “tri-cast” that includes Fox, NFL Network and Amazon carrying the 11-game slate that starts in Week 5. Streaming — which the NFL negotiated outside its deal with Fox — has become a lucrative and audience-expanding endeavor for the league.

Under a deal announced earlier this year, Amazon’s new multi-year pact further expands its “Thursday Night Football” reach to 200 countries and territories through Amazon Prime and Twitch streaming services. Amazon will also exclusively stream one regular season game later in the season. 

Key Behind-the-Scenes Player: Mike Muriano, NFL Network’s executive producer for studio and remote content, has worked this offseason to ensure the in-home setups for talent aren’t bogged down by internet traffic issues. Hosts returned to the studio after a four-month hiatus in July, but reporters and analysts will work largely from home this season.

FOS senior reporter A.J. Perez contributed to this story.