Sean McDonough gets big role he's been waiting for as new voice of MNF
Get all of Richard Deitsch’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Sean McDonough had told his bosses over the years that he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay with the network if they didn’t believe he could be the lead voice of a signature sports property. A superb performer on college football and college basketball, McDonough was a charter member of sports broadcasting’s most underrated talents given his quality work regardless of the assignment. Still, McDonough could not soar past the likes of Mike Tirico, Chris Fowler and Brent Musburger on the talent roster. McDonough said his bosses told him they believed in him, but words are one thing and assignments are another. Finally, four days short of his 54th birthday, it was announced that McDonough will be the play-by-play face of a major sports television property, as he will be taking over Tirico's role on ESPN's Monday Night Football.
It’s not often that competing sports networks work together on PR strategy but such was the case on Monday afternoon as ESPN and NBC Sports partnered to coordinate the announcements of Tirico joining NBC Sports and McDonough's new position on MNF.
As a secret, this was one of the worst ones in the sports media business. Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand broke the news on Tirico two weeks ago and insiders at both places acknowledged what was happening even as ESPN PR declined SI’s request for McDonough, and Tirico declined comment via his agent, Sandy Montag. Of course Montag also represents McDonough. (Yes, covering sports television is fun.)
ESPN had agreed not to talk publicly about a Monday Night Football successor until NBC announced Tirico had signed with them. That came at 2 p.m. ET on Monday during a conference call that was light on specifics and heavy on executive love for Tirico.
“I looked at what I do for the sports that I had involvement with at ESPN and absolutely loved those responsibilities,” said Tirico. “But then I looked at the level of events that NBC was offering. They were all championship-level events, the biggest events in those sports. At the end of the day, when you weigh those, the preponderance of those events compared to what my current portfolio was at ESPN, it was not one specific thing that was a yea or nay.”
Tirico will join NBC on July 1 after the conclusion of ESPN’s coverage of the Euro Championships. Sam Flood, the executive producer of NBC Sports, said that Tirico will have a role at the Rio Olympics but would not specify what that role will be on the call. I’d look for the network to name him as a host of a day part or as part of its golf coverage.
McDonough will be the fifth person to occupy the play-by-play position in the 46-year history of Monday Night Football, joining Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford, Al Michaels and Tirico, who called the past 10 seasons on ESPN. He will work alongside analyst Jon Gruden and reporter Lisa Salters and will continue his ESPN college basketball assignments after the NFL season. McDonough had signed a contract extension prior to Tirico’s move so the Monday Night Football gig represents both a great career opportunity and a financial windfall.
“I’m glad I persevered the past few years; it wasn’t difficult to do it because I loved what I did,” McDonough said. “For a long time I had really good opportunities but it wasn’t the World Series, it wasn't Monday Night Football.”
ESPN executive vice president of programming and production John Wildhack said on Monday that the network had a short list of candidates after Tirico told executives he was leaving and that McDonough was at the top of his list. He said ESPN did not offer the job to anyone else.
“The only conversation we had about this was with Sean,” Wildhack said. “Sean is one of the exceptional talents in our industry and anything Sean had done he has done in a first class manner. I am supremely confident he will do a great job.”
McDonough and Tirico are close friends, having ties that go back to their undergraduate days at Syracuse. McDonough knew before ESPN executives that Tirico was considering moving to NBC. “I can tell you that Sean is one of my greatest, closest friends,” Tirico said. “Any chair that Sean McDonough sits in is one that is in great hands.”
Added McDonough: “I think the only guy who has had a better week than Mike and me—as I said to Mike when I spoke to him this morning—is our shared agent, Sandy Montag. He has had the best week of anyone.”
McDonough said he would miss college football but obviously Monday Night Football was a dream opportunity for him. He called regional NFL games at CBS in the 1990s with Hank Stram but had never been able to crack the main chair for the NFL at ABC or ESPN.
How did the Monday Night Football job come about? McDonough said that Wildhack called him out of the blue two weeks ago when he was leaving the gym. The executive told him that Tirico was leaving ESPN, though McDonough already knew of this possibility given he is close friends with Tirico. “He told me he had a very short list and I was at the top of it and he wanted [ESPN vice president and MNF producer] Jay Rothman to come out and visit to explain how the whole package worked and what the expectations were.”
Rothman, who had worked with McDonough on college basketball decades earlier, met with McDonough at his home in Quincy, Mass. for three hours. McDonough said Rothman ended the conversation saying, “This is the right way to go and I’m going to call John Wildhack and [vice president] Mark Gross.”
When Rothman told him that he was his choice, McDonough said he started getting emotional. He also nearly broke down on a conference call on Monday when speaking about his father, Will McDonough, a former Boston Globe writer who morphed to television and pioneered the role of an NFL insider on TV. “My dad was the foremost influence in my life and he still is even though he has been gone for 13 years,” said McDonough, whose brother Terry, is a vice president with the Arizona Cardinals.
While Tirico is one of the most versatile broadcasters of his generation and always provides a professional broadcast, I think Monday Night Football has a chance to improve with the talent change. To me, McDonough, Dan Shulman and Mike Breen are ESPN’s best play-by-play announcers regardless of sport and I think the NFL viewing public is soon going to realize what Big Ten football, major college basketball, and Boston Red Sox viewers (McDonough called the team’s games from 1988 to 2004) already know: McDonough is an exceptional and prepared game caller with a big voice and a flare for terrific calls at the most dramatic moments of a game. (He also survived a health scare four years ago). In fact, I predict this will be one of the most seamless talent transitions in ESPN history, up there with Rece Davis taking over for Chris Fowler on College GameDay. The biggest downside for ESPN is finding a new college football partner for Chris Spielman and figuring out who replaces Tirico for his many other assignments. His versatility will be missed immensely.
Tirico said the split with ESPN was not acrimonious and ESPN officials said they same. This does not always happen in the business. “They allowed me to pursue this opportunity,” Tirico said. “This was not in any way acrimonious. It was very professional.”
On the subject of whether Tirico will call the NFL in the future for NBC—which I’d call a lock—Tirico said, “I try not to get into the specifics of all of that because of the uncertainty that happens down the line here. Of course, calling the NFL is a big deal. But the Olympics is a big deal. NBC has multiple primetime NFL packages. There are opportunities that are going to be there hopefully for a very long stay at NBC.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s biggest sports media stories)
1. On Sunday night, I spoke to Bob Costas about his future as NBC’s Olympic host.
2. Episode No. 56 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN host Adnan Virk, a versatile player who works on the network’s college football and MLB coverage, as well as ESPN Radio.
On this podcast, Virk discusses the defections of Skip Bayless and Mike Tirico, the impact of being the first Muslim anchor to be hired by ESPN, how often his religion interacts with his job as a public person, his friendship with Curt Schilling and Schilling reaching out to him after the former pitcher's ESPN suspensions, whether being a generalist is good or bad for a sports TV host, how he arrived from Canada to work at ESPN, the Canadian star power of Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, whether he was a legit contender to replace Scott Van Pelt after he left his radio show with Ryen Russillo, whether Danny Kannel is a bro or pro, the importance of being repped by a well-known agent if you want to get a major job in the field, taking photos with Bayless, his favorite scene from Heat, the potential of a future podcast with Matthew Berry and Michelle Beadle and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play andStitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
3. On Monday The Big Lead reported that Cris Carter and Ray Lewis are “expected to be on their way out” and that Fox’s Randy Moss “is expected to be on his way in” regarding the network’s NFL coverage. Both ESPN and Fox declined to comment. Carter and Lewis leaving the network would not be a surprise given Carter’s past 12 months of not-so-great news and Lewis underperforming his contract. But Moss is surprising given how much Fox Sports was thrilled with his work—he’s been excellent for them—and how much Fox Sports talent outwardly praised him. I’m told the Moss deal is not complete but it is heading in that direction. If so, Moss is a lock for ESPN’s Sunday morning show.
4. Rare to see ESPN executives publicly comment on the competition but Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter, responded to FS1’s plans to defeat SportsCenter with cogent and forceful words.
5. Awful Announcing examined Fox Sports Radio and its quest for the hottest takes in the AM.
5a. ESPN always does quality work with college softball and here’s the network’s schedule of college softball conference championship games.