NFL

Ratings don’t tell the whole story of the ‘ManningCast’ phenomenon

Eli and Peyton Manning during a game in East Rutherford, New Jersey in 2006. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images


The Nielsen ratings for ESPN’s “ManningCast” — the alternate “Monday Night Football” viewing option on ESPN2 that features the comedic stylings and occasional football insights of Peyton and Eli Manning — are impressive but hardly phenomenal.

Take the Patriots’ 14-10 win over the Bills this past Monday. That broadcast averaged 14.97 million viewers across ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Deportes. The traditional broadcast on ESPN drew 13.28 million of those viewers, the program’s second-largest viewership this season in the eight games in which there was an option to watch the Manning brothers.

And the “ManningCast”? That brought in 1.63 million viewers, just its fourth-largest audience of the season, and roughly 12 percent of the traditional broadcast’s audience. The ratings look better in context of what an alternate broadcast — such as the “megacasts” put together for the college football playoffs — usually delivers. The “ManningCast” accounts for the top seven most-watched alternate broadcasts in ESPN history. (The college football megacast debuted in 2014.)

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So the ratings are good, if hardly phenomenal. But the show itself is undeniably a phenomenon. There was plenty to talk about during the buildup to Patriots-Bills, divisional rivals battling for first place in the AFC East, and yet one question always seemed to seep into the conversation: Which broadcast are you going to watch, the conventional one with Steve Levy, Louis Riddick, and Brian Griese, or the “ManningCast”?

And what happened on the “ManningCast” is unfailingly part of sports fans’ discussions on Tuesday morning. I’m not sure we have water cooler conversations anymore since many if not most of us still aren’t regulars in the office, but the “ManningCast” is part of whatever the modern version of that is — a running text chain with your buddies, perhaps.

And even if we don’t watch the “ManningCast” from beginning to end — their chattiness and digressions make the traditional broadcast more appealing if you are a fan of one of the teams playing — their highlights and interviews generate interest on social media.

Buzz-wise, the “ManningCast” isn’t the biggest phenomenon I’ve seen in NFL broadcasting, but it is on the short list. Keeping in mind that I’m not including one-offs like NBC’s announcer-less broadcast of a Jets-Dolphins game in December 1980 or why-didn’t-we-do-this-sooner? technological advances like the superimposed yellow first-down line or the score bug, here are the NFL broadcasting sensations I’d rate ahead of it.

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The Howard Cosell/Frank Gifford/Don Meredith version of “Monday Night Football.” The inaugural “MNF” booth in 1970 featured Keith Jackson on play-by-play. But his primary association would be with college football. “MNF” took off and became a cultural touchstone, the original must-see TV sporting event, after Gifford, the all-American hero, joined the bombastic Cosell and the casually charismatic Meredith in the booth for the 1971 season. That trio was together through ‘73, and again from 1977-84, when the party finally was over.

“The NFL Today.” The original sports pregame show when it debuted as “Pro Football Kickoff” in 1961 on CBS, the show found its most successful format in 1975 when it rebranded as “The NFL Today” and introduced a diverse cast that included host Brent Musberger, analyst Irv Cross, reporter Phyllis George, with betting expert Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder coming aboard in ‘76. The show won 13 Emmys in 1975 and remained No. 1 in its time slot until CBS lost NFC broadcasting rights to Fox in 1994. Recommended read: “You Are Looking Live!: How The NFL Today Revolutionized Sports Broadcasting,” Rich Podolsky’s new book on the history and impact of the show.

Pat Summerall and John Madden. Simply put, the best NFL broadcast pairing of all time. Summerall was almost comically understated — I’ll pause here while you go watch his just-the-facts call of Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI — while the excitable Madden seemed liable to come crashing through your television and into your living room at any moment. And yet it worked, perfectly. Recommended rewatch: Their call of Super Bowl XXXI between the Packers and Patriots. At one point, Madden matter-of-factly says he thinks Bill Parcells was coaching his last game with the Patriots. He was informed.

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Tony Romo. Hard to believe Jim Nantz, Romo, and Tracy Wolfson will be calling their 100th game together this weekend. (Twenty-four have been Patriots games, if you were wondering.) It doesn’t feel like that long ago when Romo became an instant sensation in 2017 by revealing an uncanny knack for identifying what an offense would try to do right before it tried to do it. He’s toned down the “NostraRomo” stuff some, and he’s a little more off-the-cuff than he used to be, but you know it’s a meaningful game when Nantz and Romo are in the booth and Wolfson on the sideline.

Honorable mentions: Chris Berman’s Sunday night highlights on ESPN’s “NFL PrimeTime”… The advent of NFL RedZone in 2009 … The Dick Enberg/Merlin Olsen pairing on NBC in the 1980s, the AFC answer to CBS’s Summerall and Madden.

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