ESPN’s Monday Night Madness
From Mike and Mike to Chris Berman, ESPN has given little regard to proven play-by-play skills when it comes to Monday Night Football's late-night opener. The perfect choice for this year's game is right under their noses—informed, professional and proven. It's past time they gave her the assignment
Promotion and vanity have long been first cousins at ESPN, and one of the annual family outings occurs during the first week of the Monday Night Football schedule. For the past seven years with little exception, ESPN management has assigned broadcasters to the second game of its opening week MNF doubleheader—the so-called “B” game that kicks off at 10 p.m. ET—with little regard for the announcers’ NFL game-calling experience. Obviously, that is the network’s right. When you pay $1.9 billion a year for a television property, as ESPN is currently doing for the rights to MNF, you get a few perks, and one of those perks is picking the announcers.
Some history: Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, the ESPN Radio morning show personalities, were assigned the game from 2007 to ’10. That was clearly done as a promotional vehicle for the Mike and Mike brand, though both broadcasters prepared and took the assignment seriously. During the Mike and Mike Era of Monday Night Football, NFL analyst Mike Ditka was also brought in as part of a “Three Mikes” promotion. That’s the kind of marketing idea that sounds good at the ESPN cafeteria but loses steam once it crosses the Bristol, Conn. line.
Longtime NFL voice Brad Nessler restored some broadcaster sanity to the game in 2010 and ’11 (with the always-excellent Trent Dilfer) before ESPN management foisted the Late Night with Chris Berman concept despite Berman having never called college or pro football play-by-play.
Naturally, that announcement came with all the PR trimmings, including a podcast with Berman conducted by ESPN Pravda. If you want to call Berman’s assignment rewarding a longtime employee for years of NFL service, that’s totally fair, perhaps even heartwarming. If you want to call it a vanity play for an announcer who is as much a part of an NFL apparatus as The Duke football, that would be accurate too.
Because I’m a charitable guy, I’m going to give ESPN an idea that offers the dream tonic of promotion and boldness. Plus, there’s the bonus of having the game called by a professional football announcer:
ESPN should assign Beth Mowins to call the Chargers at Cardinals game (10:20 ET kickoff) on Sept. 8, and pair her with a quality NFL game analyst such as Dilfer or Steve Young.
Whether it’s college football, women’s basketball, softball, volleyball or anything else she’s assigned, Mowins is a no-shtick broadcaster who is always prepared and professional. She began calling college football nine years ago. In 2011 the network wisely promoted her to a full-time slate of college football on ESPN2’s Saturday noon telecast. Every Saturday, she chips away at the antiquated notion that football play-by-play must be delivered by a man. (Note to the inevitable mouth-breathers calling me a sports feminist: Blast away, but make sure you spell it correctly. It’s D-E-I-T-S-C-H.) If you want to compare her reps calling football to Berman’s, it’s the difference between LeBron James and Austin Croshere.
A woman calling the NFL on a regular basis is an idea whose time really should have come long ago. In 1987, Mike Weisman, then the executive producer of NBC Sports and one of the most innovative producers in sports broadcasting history, assigned then-newscaster Gayle Sierens to call the Seahawks-Chiefs game on the final Sunday of the regular season. Weisman offered Sierens six more game opportunities for the following year but she opted to focus on her news career. The headline on this Richard Sandomir profile of Sierens remains unchanged six years later: “First Woman To Call NFL Play By Play, and The Last.”
Assigning Mowins the late MNF game would follow news that the CBS Sports Network will air a once-a-week, nightly opinion-based sports show with an all-female cast. That’s a smart play for CBS Sports, which needs different concepts (and more viewers). As long as the show avoids First Take buffoonery or pink ghettoizing every sports issue, the effort alone will have meaning. One of the women who will appear on the show is Amy Trask, the former CEO of the Oakland Raiders who now works as an NFL analyst for CBS. I asked Trask how NFL brass would view Mowins doing a one-off or multiple NFL games.
“The league is a business and to the extent it believes it beneficial—economically or from a public perception standpoint—to include a woman on a broadcast team, I believe that it would do so,” Trask said. “I don’t believe that players or coaches would be the slightest bit concerned about this. Stated differently, I believe that players and coaches are concerned with whether someone can get the job done and that it wouldn’t matter to them whether that person was a man or a woman.”
No broadcaster has worked more closely with Mowins than Debbie Antonelli. The two have partnered on more than 1,000 college basketball broadcasts or podcasts since they first began calling ACC games as a pair for Fox Sports South in the early 1990s.
“Beth is aware her margin for error is slim and it serves as motivation for her unique opportunity,” Antonelli said. “She is concerned with what’s in her control: her work ethic, her motivation, and her love for her job. No one dictates those things for Beth. She protects and respects the game she is broadcasting.”
I intentionally did not contact Mowins for this piece. She did not plant this idea for the column, nor did anyone on her behalf. In previous interviews with SI.com, she has said the NFL would be the highest honor for a football broadcaster but did not express calling NFL games as her ultimate broadcasting goal.
Antonelli believes Mowins would accept the assignment immediately if offered.
“As her friend, I would be thrilled for her to challenge herself at the highest level in football,” Antonelli said. “Detractors of having a woman call football say the same clichés—she didn’t play, she doesn’t know the game. Beth didn’t play football but she knows the game, the rules and it would be awesome for her to lead women into a different role in the NFL, a challenge that I’m positive she would navigate and handle.”
ESPN has been the most forward-thinking sports broadcaster when it comes to giving on-air female staffers opportunities, and assigning Mowins would be received with great pride from its employees (as well as women throughout the sports media.). As of now, alas, the late-game MNF assignment has been made:
The network told The MMQB earlier this week that Berman and Dilfer will call the game for a third consecutive year.