Monday Night Football is a long-running weekly television broadcast of National Football League games. Debuting on ABC in 1970 and airing on ESPN since 2006, the program was conceived both as an answer to Major League Baseball's Game of the Week (and the NHL's Hockey Night in Canada) and as a national showcase for the best teams in the NFL, with the league using the coveted Monday Night slot to spotlight matches between high-caliber teams.
An instant ratings hit, MNF quickly became a fixture in American sports and pop culture, with its principal 1970s announcing team—play-by-play man Frank Gifford, color analysts Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith—becoming household names. The series also played a sizable role in helping to make NFL football the most popular spectator sport in the US, as the telecasts routinely highlighted the league's top players and rivalries, and even produced a spin-off of sorts, as ESPN (which was by then majority-owned by ABC) followed suit to introduce Sunday Night Football in 1987.
Things changed when in 2005, when Disney (who by that time owned both ABC and ESPN) decided that declining ratingsnote and escalating TV contracts no longer made the series profitable enough for ABC to keep. A large part of the problem was that competitive balance had become a problem for the schedule makers, as the top teams from the previous season might no longer be so the next season. This resulted in late-season matchups that were clunkers because one or the other of the teams were no longer a playoff contender, making the Monday night game less appealing to a national audience. ABC's recurring death slot problem for shows that preceded the game (or followed it, depending upon the time zone) cropped up again once MacGyver was canceled, since none of the subsequent shows in the slot could recapture the perfect chemistry of Richard Dean Anderson's iconic character leading into MNF. Thus, many affiliate stations pre-empted whatever was before the game with local football shows, leaving ABC to air programs like 20/20 Downtown before a diminishing audience of apathetic viewers.
ABC, among other entities, tried to get the NFL to agree to a concept which would eventually become known as "flex scheduling," which would be invoked when needed to replace a poor match-up with a better one. At the time the idea was deemed impractical because of the logistics involved in moving a Sunday afternoon game to Monday night.
As part of that year's reshuffling of the NFL TV contracts, Disney decided to bid on the MNF contract but put the games on ESPN. With subscription fees in addition to regular advertising income, ESPN could bid more for the contract than ABC and still maintain profitability. The move of the iconic and still top-rated series to cable angered many fans, but NBC bid on the now-vacant Sunday night package. The Sunday night game was now considered the marquee game of the week and flex scheduling was put into place for this package as it's much easier to move a game 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 hours later in the day than a day-and-a-half later. Likewise, MNF ended up taking the games that were on the old Sunday night contract. Disney decided not to bid on the Sunday night package due to the then-dominance of Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights at the time. Nowadays, although NBC easily wins Sunday evenings during NFL season, ABC manages hold its own with counterprogramming such as celebrity editions of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! (and now during the summer, Celebrity Family Feud, plus revivals of Pyramid and Match Game). On the other hand, ABC's Monday evening lineup of Dancing with the Stars and Castle has done better with a steady lineup through the year, even against MNF, while NBC is now saddled with a post-Super Bowl lineup on Sunday nights which generally trails the other networks'.
Monday Night Football remains popular even with the jump to cable and routinely ends up in the Top Ten Nielsen ratings chart every Monday. (However, a side effect is that because local stations in the team markets syndicated the games from ESPN, ratings usually have to be adjusted to account for that; for instance, if the CW affiliate in a market carries the game, it's pretty obvious that men 25-54 haven't suddenly found an interest in Jane the Virgin for a night.) And with the games on cable, it's now possible to have a season-opening Monday night doubleheader with one game beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern time and the second at 10:15 Eastern. The later game usually involves two west-coast teams (usually the currently awful Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders have been involved to much viewer and advertiser annoyance), though in 2010, it was played in Kansas City (a 9:15 p.m. kickoff locally). It also gives ESPN a prominent day to market everything about their network, and all programming is focused around both Monday morning quarterbacking and hyping that night's game.
ABC returned to NFL broadcasting in 2016, when it simulcasted the ESPN broadcast of a Wild Card game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. It would continue simulcasting ESPN's Wild Card games the following seasons, and added the Pro Bowl in 2018 and simulcasts of two late-season MNF games in 2020. In 2021, ESPN announced that it had renewed rights to Monday Night Football; as part of the deal, ABC would simulcast a Saturday doubleheader in the last week of the season, a Wild Card game, and a Divisional game. ABC would also gain some exclusive Monday Night Football games and enter the rotation for Super Bowl broadcasts again. The 2021 season also saw ESPN announce that brothers Peyton and Eli Manning, former star NFL quarterbacks, would be the broadcasting team for a simulcast branded as Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli (or, as fans quickly dubbed it, the "Manningcast"). The brothers called ten Monday night contests during the 2021 season; these aired on ESPN2, as well as on the company's ESPN+ streaming service. ESPN has since extended the brothers' contract through 2024.
Monday Night Football has been broadcast on:
- ABC (1970–2005, select games 2020–present)
- ESPN and ESPN2 (2006–present)
- There were some Monday night games aired on CBS in the late 1960s as a sort of test run of the concept, but they were not played every week and are not considered part of the series as such; nor are the rare one-off games that it and other networks have aired on Monday nights since 1970 due to scheduling issues.
- Monday night games have also aired on various national radio networks – including Mutual, CBS, NBC, and (currently) Westwood One – as well as the local radio stations of the featured teams.
Monday Night Football broadcast personalities through the years:
- Keith Jackson (ABC, 1970)
- Frank Gifford (ABC, 1971–85)
- Al Michaels (ABC, 1986–2005)
- Mike Tirico (ESPN, 2006–15)
- Sean McDonough (ESPN, 2016–17)
- Joe Tessitore (ESPN, 2018–19)
- Steve Levy (ESPN, 2021–22)
- Joe Buck (ESPN, 2022–present)
- Howard Cosell (ABC, 1970–83)
- Don Meredith (ABC, 1970–73, 1977–84)
- Alex Karras (ABC, 1974–76)
- Fran Tarkenton (ABC, 1979–82)
- O. J. Simpson (ABC, 1983–85)
- Joe Namath (ABC, 1985)
- Frank Gifford (ABC, 1986–97)
- Dan Dierdorf (ABC, 1987–98)
- Boomer Esiason (ABC, 1998–99)
- Dan Fouts (ABC, 2000–01)
- Dennis Miller (ABC, 2000–01)
- John Madden (ABC, 2002–05)
- Tony Kornheiser (ESPN, 2006–08)
- Joe Theismann (ESPN, 2006)
- Ron Jaworski (ESPN, 2007–11)
- Jon Gruden (ESPN, 2009–17)
- Booger McFarland (ESPN, 2018–19)
- Jason Witten (ESPN, 2018)
- Brian Griese (ESPN, 2020–21)
- Louis Riddick (ESPN, 2020–21)
- Troy Aikman (ESPN, 2022–present)
- Lynn Swann (ABC, 1994–97)
- Lesley Visser (ABC, 1998–99)
- Eric Dickerson (ABC, 2000–01)
- Melissa Stark (ABC, 2000–02)
- Lisa Guerrero (ABC, 2003)
- Michele Tafoya (ABC, 2004–05; ESPN, 2006–10)
- Sam Ryan (ABC, 2005)
- Suzy Kolber (ABC, 2005; ESPN, 2006–11)
- Lisa Salters (ESPN, 2012–present)
Monday Night Football contains examples of the following tropes:
- Accidental Misnaming:
- During the late '70s and early '80s, Frank Gifford would often mispronounce then-Atlanta Falcons head coach Leeman Bennett's name as "Leeman Beeman"; the MNF crew would often hold bets on which quarter Gifford would make the flub.
- On at least one occasion, Gifford referred to Dennis Thurman as "Thurman Munson", evidently confusing the Cowboys' defensive back with the deceased catcher for baseball's New York Yankees.
- Bearer of Bad News: Howard Cosell reported the news of John Lennon's murder late in the fourth quarter of a Patriots-Dolphins game on December 8, 1980. (The booth had apparently been given the bulletin and asked to keep quiet about it until ABC News could get on the air. Cosell announced it anyway. They also unknowingly broke Yoko Ono's requests to the hospital staff to not announce it on TV in case her son Sean was watching. As it transpired, a producer for ABC's New York flagship station WABC-7, Alan J. Weiss, was also at the hospital after having crashed his motorcycle. When he heard what was going on (Lennon was wheeled in right next to him), he called the station, and word percolated to the president of ABC News at the time, Roone Arledge, who was also head of ABC Sports. Arledge passed it along to the booth commentators, who promptly debated whether or not to share it on the air. As it happened, ABC was beaten to the punch by NBC, which interrupted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to air the breaking news a few minutes before Cosell's announcement.
- Big "WHAT?!": This was commentator Al Michaels' reaction to Green Bay Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman's astonishing catch and subsequent touchdown to beat the Minnesota Vikings in overtime in a November 2000 game."Touchdown! He did WHAT?!!"
- Bootstrapped Theme: Now universally recognized as the MNF theme music, Johnny Pearson's "Heavy Action" was originally used only as accompaniment for halftime highlights, and didn't become the opening theme until several years later. (The original opening theme was a funky organ-based piece called "Score".) What's more, "Heavy Action" wasn't actually composed for MNF at all, but for The BBC's production music library. They later used it as the theme for the sports-competition show Superstars. (It continues to herald BBC sports broadcasts in the UK.) It also introduced a series of films syndicated by SFM Entertainment under the "SFM Holiday Network" title in the 1970s and '80s.
- Brutal Honesty: Howard Cosell, noted for his "tell it like it is" sportscasting commentary.
- Couch Gag: Promos for games that used "Are You Ready for Some Football?" by Hank Williams Jr. would occasionally see Williams slightly edit the lyrics for whatever two teams were about to play that evening.
- Disney Acid Sequence: In recent years, ESPN has become known for featuring strange CGI shorts for stats packages that often fall into this department, such as "Bob Quinn the Builder", one depicting New York Jets kickers as Rockettes, and so on.
- Dodgy Toupee: Howard Cosell, who was frequently noted for wearing one while on the air.
- Flipping the Bird: Done by a disgruntled Houston Oilers fan to the camera during a 1972 game, prompting the classic Meredith quip, "He's saying the Oilers are number one in the nation!" (Amusingly, this would later be unintentionally referenced at WABC, when station reporter Mara Wolinsky was unintentionally caught giving the finger to a camera person, prompting anchorman Roger Grimsby to eventually quip "Well, as Mara Wolinsky would say, we're number one.)
- Hypercompetent Sidekick: Hall of Fame QB (and college football commentator) Dan Fouts during Dennis Miller's tenure, who provided meaningful football commentary to back up Miller's non-sequitur quips.
- Insufferable Genius: Howard Cosell, whose intellectual commentary, blunt, long-winded monotonous voice, and arrogant personality was described in his own words as "arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a show-off".
- Long Runner: Over 50 seasons and counting.
- Ms. Fanservice: Some of their female sideline reporters have been seen as this, most notably Melissa Stark and Lisa Guerrero in the latter years of the ABC run.
- Mood Whiplash: The broadcast of December 8, 1980, when Howard Cosell broke the news of John Lennon's murder during the game's closing minutes, noting that in the grand scheme of things, the game wasn't that important."Yes, we have to say it. Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all of The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead. On. Arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which in duty bound, we have to take."
- Also occurred in the January 2, 2023 broadcast with the collapse of Damar Hamlin. One moment it was the fun, energized atmosphere one might expect for a late-season match with playoff implications, and in the next moment all of that was replaced with tension and fear as it became clear that something was going on that was far more serious than a typical injury situation.
- Though a less dire situation, the opening game of the 2023 season had this when newly-acquired Jets QB Aaron Rodgers was injured on the first drive of the game. The announcers did their best to not let it affect how they called the game, but it was clear just based on what fans could see and hear from the crowd that a lot of energy had been sucked out of the building all at once.
- Odd Couple:
- Cosell and Meredith openly disliked each other (though they both intentionally played this up), providing dramatic tension in the broadcast and helping to push ratings through the roof. Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser were a lesser version.
- A one-time historical Odd Couple: one game in 1974 had Ronald Reagan (then nearly at the end of his time as Governor of California) and John Lennon showing up at the same broadcast. Off-screen, Reagan was seen in a friendly chat with Lennon explaining some of the rules of American Football to him.
- Self-Deprecation: In referring to himself Howard Cosell once remarked: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. There's no question that I'm all of those things."
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Cosell's stock in trade. Dennis Miller was prone to this as well.
- Straight Man: Frank Gifford filled this role throughout his entire tenure, with occasional dips into Only Sane Man territory when he was teamed up with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
- Thematic Theme Tune: A reworked version of Hank Williams Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" (known to most as "Are You Ready for Some Football?"), performed by the man himself, was used as the opening theme from 1989 to 2011. It returned for the 2017 season after several years of dull openings mainly populated by non-subtle placement of GMC vehicles.
- Viewers Are Geniuses:
- Dennis Miller's run on the show.
- Cosell occasionally ventured into this territory, but knew when to draw back as well. Miller turned it up to eleven.
- You Just Had to Say It: The moment when the camera was on Fair Hooker, and Don Meredith said: "Well, I haven't met one yet!"