Even with the tonnage of hours accrued by on-air talent such as Stephen A. Smith and soon-to-be morning hosts Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle and Jalen Rose, no on-air position at ESPN carries more weight than the Monday Night Football analyst job. It places you in front of more than 10 million people weekly on the property ESPN values the most. The person replacing Jon Gruden will be one of the most important people in the company—and the decision on the talent will be a defining hire for those making it, a group that includes top execs Connor Schell, Stephanie Druley and Mark Gross, with input from Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman and others.
In an attempt for insight into what ESPN management is looking for in the post-Gruden era, I spoke this week with Druley, who was refreshingly transparent on the topic of MNF. She confirmed ESPN has started its search for Gruden’s replacement, a process they hope to conclude by spring.
“We want someone who loves the game, who is a student of the game but who has a personality as well,” said Druley, the network’s senior vice president of event and studio production. “We want them to have interests outside of football and the ability to connect with the viewers. We talk often about how a broadcast should personalize and analyze—and I think we need to do more of that in the MNF booth.”
Druley made clear during her interview with SI.com that the focus is on the analyst chair. She all but confirmed play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough will return for his third season. Druley said Gruden’s decision to leave ESPN after nine years was not a major surprise to ESPN executives.
“We went through that news cycle every year,” Druley said. “Everyone was interested in Jon or at least that is what everybody wrote each year. But this one was the first time it had reached my level. Honestly, I am more surprised that it we had nine years of him doing it. It is in your blood if you are a coach: TV fills part of that void, but they always want back in.”
Druley said Matt Hasselbeck, who will call the Pro Bowl next Sunday for ESPN at 3:00 p.m. ET, is a definitive candidate for Gruden’s job.
“We are considering Matt, for sure,” she said. “I would not consider the Pro Bowl an audition per se. When we hired Matt a few years ago there were other networks that wanted Matt as a game analyst. I expect Matt to be very good this and he will certainly be considered.”
With former ESPN president John Skipper’s unexpected resignation last month, I asked Druley if ESPN had a hiring freeze on major talent prior to a fulltime person taking the President position. “We are not on hold,” Druley said. “We are business as usual, we have stuff to do and this is one of those things.”
The white whale for all NFL television rightsholders is Peyton Manning, who has not shown any interesting in broadcasting so far. Asked whether the network would reach out to Manning on the remote chance he was interested, Druley said that Manning is aware of ESPN’s interest but nothing beyond that at this time. “We like Peyton Manning,’ Druley said. “And we would be foolish not to talk him.”
If Hasselbeck ends up getting the Gruden job, or if ESPN opted to use someone else from its Sunday Countdown show, such as Randy Moss, it would obviously change the talent composition and chemistry of that show. Druley said that would not be an issue. “If there person is sitting on the Countdown set right now who is the best fit for Monday Night Football, we will figure out what happens next,” she said.
On the issue of whether Druley foresaw changes for Sunday Countdown independent of a staffer heading to Monday Night Football—the show’s ratings dropped this year by double digits, though NFL pregame shows were down across the board—Druley said she did not anticipate any changes to the cast.
THE NOISE REPORT
1. Episode 157 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a roundtable with Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand and Newsday general columnist and sports media writer Neil Best. In this podcast, the group discusses the viewership potential of a Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl; how long until Super Bowl viewership drops below 100 million; new NBC Olympics host Mike Tirico saying he won’t get into politics at the Games like Bob Costas; the Today Show-ization of NBC’s Olympic coverage; whether hockey will draw in South Korea; the Thursday Night Football bids for Fox, CBS and NBC; what Fox would do with the package if they get the bid; knocking down the Jeff Zucker to ESPN story; why the coverage of the USA Gymnastics scandal took so long to gain prominence; whether NBC should cover the story during its Winter Olympics coverage; the death of longtime Canadiens reporter Red Fisher who died Friday at age 91, the conscience of Montreal hockey whose career touched seven decades, and much more. To listen to the podcast in full, check it out on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.
2. On Tuesday Sporting News writer Michael McCarthy reported that Fox Sports MLB analyst Alex Rodriguez will join the Sunday Night Baseball announcing team. Rodriguez will continue to work with Fox Sports in the postseason as a studio analyst.
SI.com can confirm Jessica Mendoza will remain on the ESPN game call with Rodriguez. ESPN will also soon announce its replacement for play-by-play announcer Dan Shulman. McCarthy reported that ESPN is finalizing a deal to hire play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian as the new play-by-play announcer. Karl Ravech and Jon Sciambi are the leading in-house candidates.
2a. A number of viewers asked why Bob Costas will not be serving as the host of the Super Bowl after NBC announced he would prior to the season. (Liam McHugh and Dan Patrick will serve as the hosts.) Said Costas via NBC Sports PR: “Dan and Liam have done the job hosting NBC’s NFL coverage all season. It wouldn’t be right for me to parachute in and host the Super Bowl.”
2b. NBC released its television schedule for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Bookmark this.
3. ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick will serve as a field analyst for ESPN’s Pro Bowl coverage on Sunday. It’s the first time Riddick, a sensational studio analyst, will do live reports from a game setting.
4. Episode 156 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features CBS Sports play by play announcer Jim Nantz, the network’s lead voice on the NFL, golf and college basketball. In this podcast, Nantz discusses the impact new partner Tony Romo has had on him; why Romo had such a successful first season in the booth; Romo’s nerd-like reverence for golf broadcasting; how Nantz prepares to call postseason NFL games; the challenge of preparing for the Final Four and the Masters given how close they are too each other; his current relationship with Phil Simms and learning about Romo replacing Simms; the contention that the Masters does not offer enough live coverage of the event; why he has thought about calling golf through 2036; the famed lark about him loving burnt toast; how he navigates personal relationships with calling the events of people he considers friends; traveling on the road as much as he does; why calling the U.S. Open and Wimbledon are bucket list items; the time when famed sports television executive Roone Arledge considered him for Good Morning America; hosting corporate executives in the booth; how one prepares for a trophy presentation, and much more. To listen to the podcast in full, check it out on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.
5. ESPN announced its next 30 for 30—“The Two Bills”—will premiere Feb. 1 on ESPN at 9:00 p.m. ET. The documentary features Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells being interviewed together for the first time since 1991 and is directed by Ken Rodgers and produced by NFL Films.