Monday Night Football kicked off 50 years ago this week. The broadcast was a crucial component in establishing the NFL as a dominant ratings force and making it the most-watched sporting league in the United States. Prior to its move to ESPN in 2005, MNF was one of the longest-running prime-time shows in the history of network TV. With a new season underway, here are five things you didn’t know about Monday Night Football.
1. It Has Hosted More Than 700 Games
Throughout the 50 seasons of Monday Night Football, the series has played 718 games as of September 21, 2020. The very first game saw the Cleveland Browns host the New York Jets. The Browns won 31-21 in a game that was watched by 33 percent of the total American viewing audience for that evening.
2. Gifford Had the Chair Longer Than Anyone
Howard Cosell remains the most famous original commentator; he held his spot for 13 years. Frank Gifford joined in the second season, and his run lasted until 1998, making him the commentator who was with the show the longest with a total of 27 years. There have been about 40 play-by-play announcers and color commentators across the history of the program on ABC and ESPN; the current team consists of Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick. There have been dozens of sideline reporters and more than a dozen radio commentators; the current radio team is Jim Gray, Kevin Harlan, and Kurt Warner.
3. Famous Guests Have Hit the Booth
Over the years, a number of celebrities dropped by the broadcast booth. Visitors have included Kermit the Frog, Richard Nixon’s first vice-president Spiro Agnew, and President Bill Clinton. On December 9, 1974, both John Lennon and Ronald Reagan were in the both at the same time. Sadly, just six years later on December 8, 1980, Lennon was shot and killed in New York City. Cosell broke the news to most of America near the end of a Monday Night game between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.
4. It Took Over American Sports and Went Global
MNF was firmly entrenched in the Top Ten of the weekly broadcast ratings for years, becoming one of the most popular shows in America. It elevated football to the position of the most-watched sport of the big three in the States, dethroning Major League Baseball as the favorite and holding off NBA basketball even at its biggest. The show is carried in Europe, Australia, and South America. ESPN has American broadcast rights, including streaming, through 2021. As of August, ESPN is looking to improve the deal for an extension.
5. Monday Night by the Numbers
The most-watched game ever was the Miami Dolphins versus the Chicago Bears on December 2, 1985. The Dolphins ruined the Bears’ shot at a perfect season, handing them their only regular season loss; the Bears would go on to win the Super Bowl (while, one presumes, doing the “Super Bowl Shuffle”). The Dolphins, however, take the title of Most MNF appearances (their 85th appearance is this season). The highest scoring game ever was in 1983 when the Green Bay Packers and the now-titled Washington Football Team ran up a combined 95 points.
MNF has been the stage for some amazing comebacks. One of the most popular came in 2003 when the Indianapolis Colts were down 35-14 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning engineered a comeback with four minutes left on the clock to tie the game; Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt kicked a winning field goal in OT, giving the Colts a 38-35 win. However, only one game is called the “Monday Night Miracle,” and that honor goes to the October 23, 2000, game between the Jets and the Dolphins. The Jets scored a seemingly impossible 30 points in the fourth quarter, tying the game and sending into OT; when it was all over, the Jets had squeaked by 40-37.
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