The Monday Night Football announcing booth has been the model of instability for sports media in recent years. Broadcasters have been shuffled in and out trying to find the right mix. Things got pretty desperate for a couple of seasons when the MNF executives decided to have comedian Dennis Miller in the booth to help liven things up.
The beginning of Monday Night Football
Although there had been games played previously on Monday nights, Monday Night Football first aired on Sept. 21, 1970. The game featured Joe Namath and the New York Jets against the Cleveland Browns. The Browns earned a 31-21 victory and sealed the win when Billy Andrews picked off a Namath pass and returned it for a touchdown.
Broadcasting the game was the legendary Howard Cosell, along with Keith Jackson and Don Meredith. In 1971, Frank Gifford’s contract with CBS Sports expired, and he joined the MNF crew, replacing Jackson, who left to call college football games. Gifford wound up in the Monday Night Football booth until 1998.
Meredith left MNF after the 1973 season and former player Fred Williamson replaced him. Williamson, however, struggled mightily during the preseason and was replaced before the regular season began. Another former player, Alex Karras, replaced Williamson. Karras remained there for three years.
Lots of turnover in the Monday Night Football booth
Don Meredith returned to the broadcasting booth in 1977. The NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, but Meredith was obligated to do just 14 games, leaving Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford by themselves in 1978. During Weeks 15-16 in 1979, former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton filled in.
In 1983, Cosell took some heat and found himself under fire for a comment he made regarding Washington Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett. Garrett, a Black player, was called “a little monkey” by Cosell during a telecast, creating a firestorm. Cosell did not return for the 1984 season and it was his decision not to return, according to The New York Times. Meredith, Gifford, and O.J. Simpson, who had replaced Frank Tarkenton.
In 1985, Meredith was replaced by Joe Namath. Namath and Simpson were replaced after the 1985 season. Veteran broadcaster Al Michaels jumped on board and teamed with Gifford in the two-man booth. Dan Dierdorf joined Michaels and Gifford in the booth in 1987 and provided the most stability MNF had in a while, lasting 11 seasons together. Boomer Esiason then replaced Gifford in 1998.
Comedian Dennis Miller joins the MNF booth
After the 1999 season, Monday Night Football saw its ratings drop for the fifth straight season. ABC Sports needed to make another change and this one borderlined on panic. For the 2000 season, the network announced it would be bringing in comedian Dennis Miller to join Al Michaels and Dan Fouts in the booth. “It may not work,” said ABC Sports president Howard Katz, according to Sports Illustrated. “We may find out that this is a bad idea. But I love taking the risk.”
As it turned out, Katz was right. The ratings continued to tank. According to the LA Times, the rating hit their lowest point in Monday Night Football’s 32 years of existence after the 2002 season. The show averaged 16.8 million viewers, which was down from 18.5 million the year before. Miller and Fouts were let go after the 2002 season.
ABC Sports lured John Madden from Fox to team with Michaels. The off-the-wall Miller experiment failed. Michaels said Miller was in a no-win situation. “In Dennis’ case, what he tried to do was the hardest thing ever attempted in broadcasting,” he told The New York Times. “No other non-football person or someone of that ilk could have pulled it off as well as he did.”