Q&A: ESPN’s Steve Levy On ‘Monday Night Football’ Rookie Year

    • Is 'Monday Night Football' announcer interested in hosting ESPN's NFL draft coverage?
    • Proclaimed 'hockey guy' talks about ESPN regaining NHL rights.

Daily Newsletter

Steve Levy of ESPN likely called the NFL’s  game of the 2020 season: the Baltimore Ravens’ wild 47-42 win over the Cleveland Browns on “Monday Night Football.”

Levy and his MNF announce team of analysts Louis Riddick and Brian Griese, sideline reporter Lisa Salters, and officiating analyst John Parry rose to the occasion, conveying the drama and excitement of the NFL’s highest-scoring game this season.

The widely-watched telecast was a victory for Levy. ESPN’s rookie MNF announce team started the year with no pre-season practice games — and no real chance to develop in-person chemistry due to coronavirus-mandated social distancing.

Even worse for Levy, ESPN’s two previous MNF booths of Joe Tessitore/Booger McFarland and Jason Witten/Tessitore/McFarland were ripped apart on social media.

Michael McCarthy of Front Office Sports asked the 55-year-old play-by-play announcer and “SportsCenter” anchor about calling Monday night’s thriller, whether he’s interested in hosting ESPN’s NFL draft coverage and if the “hockey guy” is excited about ESPN potentially regaining NHL TV rights.

Excerpts: 

FRONT OFFICE SPORTS: So what was it like calling the NFL game of the season?

Steve Levy: We did not see that coming. We were joking around with people, ‘Hey, maybe it’s a 9-6 slugfest.’ We didn’t think there’d be a lot of possessions, right? These are the two of the three best running teams in the NFL. So we thought points would be at a premium.

My spotter sent me this last night and it puts [the game] in perspective. In the game on Monday night, we had 35 points in the fourth quarter. OK? Just the fourth quarter. 27 points in the last 6:30. And we had 20 points in the last 1:51.

Think about that for a second. Inside the two-minute warning, 20 points, and then the all-important five points in the last two seconds of the game. 

So it was crazy. It felt big. Those games can go two ways, right? They’re fun. You’re up and down. They’re high-scoring. But then the meaning in the standings as well. How critical it was for Baltimore to stay alive? [Ravens quarterback] Lamar Jackson taking care of whatever business he was taking care of —  I don’t choose to get interested and involved in that. And [Browns quarterback] Baker Mayfield, could he answer, and he could. It was classic. 

I’d like to think I’ll see a few more of these kinds of games. But you really never know. But I do think it was THE game of the NFL season. It was really cool to be part of it. 

FOS: Adam Schefter of ESPN and Ian Rapoport of NFL Network tweeted Louis Riddick is interviewing for a GM job with two NFL clubs. I know Louis is highly thought of among NFL front offices. But wouldn’t it be tough for MNF to lose him so soon?

SL: Definitely. Like I said, we’re just getting started. We’re just getting rolling. But I want whatever Louis wants for himself. The only thing that surprises me about that report you had is it’s not three or four teams that are interviewing him. His football knowledge, his football IQ, is off the charts. Really him and Griese too. They are the two most cerebral NFL minds that I know.

I can tell you that during these production meetings, we’re talking to coaches and players every week, and quite frankly, a lot of it goes right over my head. There’s some serious stuff being discussed, formations and terminology, and I can see how Louis loves it.

Louis loves talking ball. That’s what he’s about. That’s what he’s meant to do. Nobody enjoys those production meetings more than Louis Riddick. And he would go on and on. If we let him, if we didn’t say, ‘Hey, we gotta wrap this up at some point.’ Or the players and teams didn’t say, ‘Hey, you know, coach has a time limit,’ Louis would go on and on. He loves talking about it. He watches so much film. He’s obviously super bright. Listen, I hope he gets whatever he wants. 

I know he loves the ‘Monday Night Football’ gig too. I get the sense that for the right GM gig, he’d be gone. Because I think that’s something really super-special. But we’ll see how it plays out. I wish him the best. He’s been a great partner. Again, he’s so bright, he’s going to improve any NFL team quickly I think. 

FOS: During an otherwise down year for NFL TV, ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ has been a bright spot. Your audiences are up four straight weeks year-over-year. Why?

SL: I’d love to take credit for that. But of course I can’t. People who know, realize the announcer [really has little impact.] I think the studies show, maybe it’s a 1% kind of thing. You want to watch the game, you’re going to watch the game. You don’t want to watch the game, it’s not going to be about the announcers because you didn’t want to watch the game. We’re trying to enhance it. If I, if we, can make it slightly more enjoyable for you then having the mute button on, then that’s the win. 

Inform and entertain. That’s been our thing. Let’s try to enhance it, make it a little better for the person who’s watching at home or wherever they’re watching. So I know we’re up week over week. But I think we’re down on the season. But everybody’s down on the season. I think we’re down less than most of the networks are, but everybody’s down. It’s a crazy year 2020. I hope we get back to some normalcy next season and those numbers go up. 

FOS: How would you like to see live NHL games on E1 or E2 again?

SL: Absolutely, bring it on. I don’t get to write the check to [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman. I get that. But I’ve heard the same thing. I’ve heard that for years. I really believe we’ve been in the mix. I’ve always respected our bosses at ESPN. I’ve been there a long time, but they don’t owe me an explanation. I’m an employee like everybody else. But I’ve heard from higher levels of management that we’ve been in every NHL negotiation since we lost it. And NBC’s just had the right of first refusal, or whatever that might be, and so every time we come with a certain dollar figure, they go over the top, and the NHL takes the money. I get it. 

So my point is, I think we’ve been interested, really, ever since we lost the rights. I know we’re interested in getting it. It’s a business deal that’s way above me. But absolutely, are you kidding me? Let’s do “Monday Night Football,” take a few weeks off and then go right into the Stanley Cup Playoffs run. Sign me up for that, Mike. I’m all in.