When “Monday Night Football” made its television network debut on September 21, 1970, the National Football League was hardly the ratings juggernaut it has become today. In fact, CBS and NBC wanted no part of then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s pie-in-the-sky plan to expand the professional game’s coverage. Only ABC, the network with the last-place ratings, reluctantly agreed to try this experiment.
Fast forward 45 years and the landscape has drastically changed. So much so, in fact, that “Progressive Pete” wouldn’t believe the monster he helped create, if he were still alive today.
Let me begin with a confession. I am a bona fide sports junkie. It began back in grade school and has carried over to my adult years. Maybe it’s my way of escaping from the world’s sometimes harsh realities. Maybe I’m just a simple guy. At any rate, this passion for sports has occasionally exceeded reasonable limitations.
At 13, I made the mistake of leaving my journal unlocked. My teenage sister waited for me to leave and then pounced on the golden opportunity. Expecting to find entries of erotic experiences, Cheryl would be sadly disappointed. “Harmon Killebrew homered again and the Twins took a pair!” “Looks like Dad and I are going to the Vikings’ game!” That was just a sampling of my innermost secrets back in 1966. Thankfully, she never got into my editions in the early 1970s, but that’s another story.
My wife, Laurie, can certainly attest to my unfailing fanaticism. When we began dating and our relationship gradually grew more serious, it was time to meet her parents. I remember being nervous and wanting to make a good impression. Unfortunately, that first encounter occurred at a sports bar, leaving me highly vulnerable. While politely munching on a burger and attempting to say all the right things, I noticed that my beloved Minnesota Golden Gophers’ basketball squad was engaged in a down-to-the-wire thriller with Illinois. When my sneak peeks at the big screen behind them grew more noticeable, they became ill AND annoyed!
Nothing can top the day of our marriage nor the birth of our twins. But I’m embarrassed to admit, I remember the Minnesota Twins lost to the White Sox while we took those vows and our Vikes’ fell to the Steelers the weekend the kids were born.
And sometimes that sports obsession has even rubbed off on others. Like the time I was attending a fellow Fargo sportscaster’s wedding while the Twins were in the midst of the 1987 playoffs. As he said, “I do,” a colleague tuned to a transistor radio in the back of the church and whispered to the rest of us that “Tom Brunansky just went deep!”
Given that kind of addiction, one might find it hard to believe that anybody like me could ever get too much of something I usually crave. That is, until now, with that same National Football League saturating our airwaves and Internet connections past the point of absurdity.
A few nights ago, our family gathered around the television, ready to take no prisoners in another highly competitive half-hour of “Wheel of Fortune.” But instead of seeing Pat and Vanna, CBS was debuting its own set of new letters. “TNF” meant “Thursday Night Football,” already a staple for years on the satellite and cable stations, but now forging new ground on commercial TV.
It didn’t take long to figure out that these folks were convinced Americans love football. Even on a Thursday night, in Week 2 of a schedule that now runs well into early February. Suddenly, “Monday Night Football” is beginning to seem like just another ballgame.
What followed was something that looked like it might be reserved for a Super Bowl. The one-hour pregame featured four on-site commentators seated at a mobile set on the sidelines at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Eventually, they tossed it to five more “experts,” back in a studio in Culver City, Calif. There were former coaches. Former star quarterbacks. Former star receivers and running backs.
Still waiting in the wings was the No. 1 CBS broadcast team of Jim Nance and Phil Simms. Throw in roving sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson and that’s a dozen people … just in front of the cameras.
Eventually, the nine studio performers offered their bold predictions on who would prevail in this game for the ages. Fitting nine picks on a single screen might look a tad busy. But we could be assured that with that many forecasters, somebody would probably come close to getting the right final score.
During the commercial breaks, sponsors did their best to remind watchers that pretty much everything has a connection to football. Wendy’s offered up its “Winning Recipe.” Lowes showed people involved in home improvement tasks, hoping to complete them easily and quickly to have time for game watching. And Draft Kings and Fan Duel endlessly promoted million dollar pay days for fantasy subscribers. Even the promos for CBS mixed local news celebrities with prime time actors, all in football jerseys and face paint.
Finally, just before the introduction of the players, complete with fireworks and confetti, Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker delivered an emotional and inspiring message to bring all participants to a fever pitch.
By this point, I’d had enough. Rather than sticking around for the kickoff, I hopped in my car and took a drive, still reeling from this pigskin pile-on. “TNF”had become “MTNF,” or “More Than Necessary Football.”
Eventually, the sports fanatic in me couldn’t resist at least getting an update. The radio announcer sounded every bit as excited as those 12 television talkers. The late summer, early regular season showdown had just completed its first quarter. It was still scoreless. With several turnovers.