When it takes a village of PR people to publicize all of your content, you know your tonnage is impressive. ESPN obviously has a huge impact on NFL news and conversation between Monday and Saturday, and once again the network has an army of talent and production elements for the 2014 season. Here’s a snapshot of what NFL fans can expect from ESPN’s NFL coverage this season.
ESPN will air its first-ever postseason game next January, with the regular Monday Night Football broadcast team (Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and sideline reporter Lisa Salters) calling a wild card game. The biggest change for MNF -- outside of some mew production gizmos -- is an earlier kickoff time (8:15 p.m. ET, starting in Week 2). The network will also televise the national anthem preceding every MNF game this fall, which is a first for the show.
On the studio end, ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown crew will broadcast from a new a 90,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art space inside ESPN’s Digital Center 2 in Bristol, Conn. New talent additions to Countdown include features reporter Michelle Beisner, contributor and former SI staffer Jim Trotter, reporter/host Wendi Nix and new Washington, D.C.-based bureau reporter Britt McHenry. SportsCenter host Lindsay Czarniak has also been added as a reporter. The network’s Monday Night Countdown pregame show will now start at 6:00 p.m. ET.
“We are really excited about the new studio,” said Seth Markman, the ESPN executive in charge of NFL studio programming. “To us that is a big deal and a game-changer on a lot of fronts. What does it means to the audience? First of all, it is just a great look. You can’t help but feel how cool the studio is. But what I really like is we have a separate environment for each of our shows. In the past Sunday Countdown would be from the same set NFL Live or college basketball or Mike and Mike. Now, Countdown has its own set, NFL Live has its own set etc…”
- Rick Reilly will no longer appear on Monday Night Countdown on a regular basis.
- Sal Paolantonio was the sideline reporter for the second Week 1 MNF game; Czarniak has the role this year.
Keep an eye on
- Ray Lewis' development as he enters his second year as a broadcaster -- Too often last season it felt Lewis had not made the separation from the Ravens.
- ESPN’s long-form profiles on NFL players -- The production quality is superb, and the features go much longer in length than their competitors. “I think what separates us from the other pregame shows are the storytelling we do that a lot of other networks have given up on,” said Markman. “We are the one place that does tell stories on Sundays and introduce you to players’ backstory. I know a lot of other places have punted on that and just made it about the talent on the set. For us, we take a lot of pride in.”
- One big source of annoyance? Manufacturing stories across platforms. As Deadspin’s John Koblin notably diagrammed last year, ESPN manufactured a cross-platform story out of Ron Jaworski’s opinion on Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick. We’ve seen the network repackage an analyst’s opinion into news stories on too many occasions and it reinforces the worst of the network’s self-important tendencies.
Ratings of note
MNF telecasts averaged 13,679,000 viewers last season, the third-most viewed season in ESPN’s eight years of presenting MNF. ESPN’s most-viewed game came on Sept. 9 when 16,524,000 viewers watched the Eagles at Redskins season opener. Here are the 10 highest-rated markets for Monday Night Football in 2013:
- New Orleans
- Las Vegas
- San Diego
- Richmond, Va.
- Norfolk-Portsmouth, Va.
- Washington D.C.
On the Redskins’ nickname
All three game broadcasters addressed the question.
Gruden: “That is the name. I’m going to refer to every team as the team they like to be referred to. And I have a lot of respect to people’s opinion. I’m going to refer to them as the Redskins.”
Tirico: “We broadcast a Washington preseason game and then ESPN released a network policy I think was five days after that game. What I followed from that broadcast was my approach, which I had vetted in a conversation with my bosses on site, Jay Rothman and Jed Drake. There are a bunch of issues here… I think the most significant issue is what do Native Americans think of the name? Those people who in my opinion can only truly gauge the impact of (what) using the term really is. I’ve connected with Syracuse in my college days and early workdays. The Oneida Nation which has been very vocal on this issue and is just a few miles from the campus of Syracuse. I’ve been aware of the sensitivity of Native Americans and things that are perceived by many Native American communities as slurs for a couple decades now.
In general to me, broadcasting a game is a bit different than working in studio. When you’re in the studio you’re talking about a team for a pretty limited length of time. Calling a game for three and a half hours, you might make hundreds of references to it by first name of the city or by nickname. Also I think to factor in here too all the networks, you broadcast a home game from D.C., from Landover, technically, the word Redskins is painted in the end zone. Really the logo with the head dress is in the middle of the field, so by not saying it are you lessening the impact of the nickname? It’s there in front of you. I don’t think we’re going to in a computer graphic way blur that out.
"There are also contractual issues here with the league. We have an obligation to use the names and the marks of the teams. The league sells us the right to do the games and we sign up as part of that as well. Here’s the bottom line for me: I have my own personal feelings on the name. I think it’s time for Dan Snyder and the league together truly take a long look at making a change. But if I’m there to document the game, and that’s what I’m paid to do and charged with, the body of the game broadcast to me is not the forum or the place to pass judgment on this issue while dancing around 2nd and 5 at the 35 yard line. I think that’s a little unfair. So I’m going to do what I did in the preseason game. The appropriate approach to me is minimize the use of the nickname but not completely avoid it. I think that’s the approach I’m going to take. We have Washington twice in early October and late October, and I’m sure this thing will play out in very formal ways over this year and years to come."
Salters: "My opinion is pretty simple. I never want to offend anyone with my actions or my words. So if I offend one person with the use of the nickname, I’d rather not use it. For me it’s a pretty simple solution because I’m not talking constantly throughout the game, like Mike and Jon.
"In our preseason game I chose to our pregame coverage to just say Washington. That’s just how I dealt with it, and it was pretty simple, subtle. No one noticed, no one said anything."
All of ESPN’s NFL programming including MNF will be accessible via WatchESPN. There are hundreds of worthy ESPN-ers to follow on Twitter for NFL information with Adam Schefter being the most wired of all of them, and ESPN Boston writer Mike Reiss being the epitome of a great beat reporter.