Hank Williams, Jr. never dreamed of this. But after 50 years of Monday Night Football, something strange is happening to America’s longest-running sports television series. Change. Or at least the option for change, called choice.
For the first three Mondays of the NFL season, viewers got to choose.
Option #1: The traditional MNF broadcast, featuring three guys in suits that most people have never heard of (apologies to Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese) delivering solid play-by-play and color commentary.
Option #2: An alternative MNF feed, featuring two brothers in button-downs, who most fans know and respect as students of the game, lounging in their man caves. The two are Peyton and Eli Manning, both former NFL quarterbacks and hands-down the best brother duo in professional sports history.
So, what’s the big deal and why a marketing blog about it? The big deal is that we might be entering a new era of live sports broadcasting. Alternative sports feeds are not new. They’ve been around for over a decade. But this one is.
As a diehard sports fan, I can’t believe what I’m about to say; but here goes. For many, the game alone is not enough.
Think of it this way. On any given Monday night, only two fan bases care deeply about every play. If your team is not playing, you’re either tracking your fantasy score, pulling against a divisional rival or just watching MNF instead of Dancing with the Stars or The Voice. And for this group, what the Mannings are creating is must-watch TV.
Peyton is super engaging, and Eli is perfect as his sidekick. It resembles a throwback to Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, for those old enough to remember The Tonight Show. And they awkwardly inhabit the screen in a Zoom call meets MNF sort of way. But being able to see them—especially Peyton’s gregariousness—along with their guests, makes it somehow more interesting than just hearing voices.
For the hardcore fan, Peyton and Eli know the game at a level most commentators study to unsuccessfully emulate. So even though the broadcast comes across as a lighter, less-polished look at the matchup, they actually go deeper inside the huddle, the players’ minds and the X’s and O’s. Their analysis is brilliant, and their delivery is authentically captivating.
And if telestrater replays are not your cup of tea, then wait a few minutes for one of their quarterly special guests. This might be the best part, as they’ve created a show within the show. Week 1: they had Charles Barkley, Ray Lewis, Travis Kelce and Russell Wilson. Week 2: Rob Gronkowski, Brett Favre, Patrick Willis and Pat McAfee. And this week, Matthew Stafford, LeBron James, Nick Saban and Chris Long. Where else are you going to get Barkley, Gronk, LeBron and Saban live and unplugged? Heck, even my wife was in stitches and already wants to know who’s next. Obama? Jordan? Tiger? Taylor Swift?
So, what about the results? Now remember, for 50 years MNF has been on ABC or ESPN. Most people aren’t even aware that a “Manningcast” exists. Which is all the more reason the early ratings are promising.
Just three weeks into the season, almost five million viewers have watched the Manningcast on ESPN2. That’s nearly 15% of the total MNF audience tuning in. At 1.9 million viewers per week, the last two games have become the two most-watched alternative telecasts in ESPN history.
I’ll admit, there were some awkward moments where Peyton and Eli were talking over each other; and yes, there were some missed plays. But all in all, this may be the new face—or at least an optional face—for live sports broadcasting.
Will this fizzle out? Possibly. Will the Mannings get tired and move onto other things? Perhaps.
But maybe, just maybe, we’re watching the face of live sports broadcasting evolve beyond the sport itself.