"Sports is the toy department of human life." -Howard Cosell
If you haven't already figured it out, tonight is the last Monday Night Football game on the American Broadcasting Corporation. Next season, the entity moves over to it's cable partner whom you might have heard of, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
Monday Night Football started as an experiment to see if football could make good television. It now moves over to cable because thirty six years later, television is trying to make good football.
The shift was inevitable. It was inevitable because all you started to hear about was "why are there bad games?" and flexible schedules and Dennis Miller in this new ratings driven culture that television has been pigeon-holed into ... the never ending quest for the casual fan. On September 21st, 1970, "Episode One: Jets/Browns" was competing with Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In". Now, television executives are trying to figure out ways to combine the two concepts...not just MNF, but all varieties of football and sports coverage.
Football fans didn't have to be told that Monday Night Football was an event ... it was just so. Football made it so, just as Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith and Frank Gifford made it so. But it was the games that gave Cosell and co. fodder to become the show. The game and its fans made it an event. Bo Jackson, Earl Campbell, Randall Cunningham, Joe Montana, the guy who leaped from the stands to catch the extra point in Chicago, and on and on ... they made it so.
October of 1998 saw Metstradamus take a trip that included a train, two buses, a stop in a hotel that had stains on the walls and no door leading to the bathroom, and a hitched ride on the back of a pick up truck to see the Jets play in Foxboro. It was not only Vinny Testaverde's first start as a New York Jet, but the 24-14 victory was widely regarded as the game that propelled the '98 Jets to the AFC Championship game. What better place for a trip like that than Monday Night? (And imagine if the Jets had lost!) Heck it was a big enough event for the Patriots game day staff to sell t-shirts commemorating the game, a regular season game! Yet it was a Monday Night Event.
It was also on Monday Night where the Jets made the most miraculous comeback in their history. You remember that the Jets were down 23 in the fourth quarter and came back to defeat the Miami Dolphins at 1:30 in the morning. I remember having the most excellent seat in the house on the 36 yard line, 7th row behind the Jets bench, watching rookie Chad Pennington play cheerleader as Vinny led the charge to victory (and that's where I remained until the last John Hall kick). I also remember that the "Monday Night Miracle" was played in the throws of the 2000 Subway Series. And even though that was the most important sporting event that week, Monday Night Football was enough of an event that it warranted the presence of Al Leiter, who circled the field and gave an interview to whoever the sideline reporter was at the time, while his Mets were still in the throws of the Series.
My question to you is this: would as many people remember the Monday Night Miracle if it didn't take place on a Monday night?
But now, television has decided that they are going to dictate what the real "event" is, as they will no doubt hype the Sunday Night NBC game as "the game" to watch (in part because Sunday Night Football isn't going to push back Leno to one in the morning). But we've seen what can happen when television execs try to force classics instead of letting them happen. You get Dennis Miller. Now I for one loved Dennis Miller. But after the first pre-season game that he called, the higher ups got nervous and advised Miller to be more of a football announcer and less of a comedian. Great idea considering the fact that Miller was hired to be a comedian, and was a comedian by trade, but hey I don't get paid to be a consultant (I wish, they make boo koo bucks). Dennis worked his ass off throughout the season to become a more knowledgable "football guy", but sadly the experiment didn't last.
But Dennis Miller did prove that fans will watch football no matter if the announcers were trained chimps. Now the chimps would have probably done a better job than Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson did in 1985, but consider that MNF's highest rated game ever was during that season...the Miami Dolphins stopping the Bears' perfect season with a 38-24 victory. I wonder if anyone decided not to watch that game because of the announcers?
Now there was Monday Night Baseball (no doubt a response to Monday Night Football), and it lasted longer than I thought it did ... from 1972-1975 on NBC, and 1976-1988 on ABC before it was moved to Thursdays. I only remembered Warner Wolf and Mark Fidrych. But there was also John Candeleria's no hitter. There was Pete Rose breaking the National League's hit record. And there was Keith Jackson, who in the process of becoming Mr. College Football, also found time to be there when Monday Night Football started, and was also there for ABC's baseball coverage ... Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS (you remember that, don't you) being the last baseball game he ever called.
There was also ABC's reluctance to televise regular season games, some thinking that they paid extra money to baseball not to televise games before October. And yes, there was Howard Cosell...
"No amount of description can hide the fact that this game is lagging insufferably."
"The man's bigger than the game, bigger than the team, bigger than the league, bigger than the sport. They talk about a new commissioner, if I had my pick, it would be you, Bob Uecker."
And now it's FOX that is trying to re-invent the wheel by televising baseball ... and in many ways, the success of Monday Night Football was a precursor to the way FOX presents baseball, with its incessant exploding graphics, intolerable celebrity cutaways, and endless shots of fans carrying the expression of a person who is watching their spouse sink in quicksand ... all of course in an attempt by television to make great baseball.
And now once again, television tries to create great football by shuffling around the networks, and an American institution goes by the wayside. Sad, but the sports consuming public will live on ... and no doubt decide on it's own what the next classic shall be. And when it does, it will most likely spawn many ripoffs and be flooded with more advertising and branding than an episode of The Apprentice. But life goes on, and we'll adjust. Hey, if we can adjust to corporate sponsored stadium names, this will be a breeze in comparison.
Joe Willie and the Jets lose the first ever Monday Night Football game by a score of 31-21, and Vinny closes out the series (and his career) as his Jets also lose the last one by a score of 31-21. Life comes full circle.
And if you close your eyes and listen, you may hear Wayne Chrebet...a major player in episodes past but merely a spectator in Episode 555 ... perhaps arm in arm with Episode One's Joe Willie, as they're strolling down the tunnel humming the tune with many meanings to many people:
Turn out the lights
The party's over
They say that
All good things must end
Call it tonight
The party's over
And tomorrow starts
The same old thing again