ESPN has landed a talent touchdown.
After years of trying to secure top sports celebrities to boost its flagship “Monday Night Football” coverage, the Disney-backed sports outlet said it has enlisted both Peyton and Eli Manning to co-anchor a second broadcast of its signature show, starting this fall. The famous football brothers will lead the new broadcast on ESPN2, and the sports-media giant said it may also place their show on its streaming-video ESPN Plus. The pair will start their duties in the fall of 2021 and continue through the 2023 season, handling a total of 30 games over three seasons.
“Offering multiple ‘Monday Night Football’ viewing options for the next three seasons continues our innovation efforts and provides additional value for our fans,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and sports content for Disney. “Peyton and Eli will bring a different approach, delving into conversation about broader, big-picture topics while also honing in on the game, much like fans do when watching with their family and friends.”
Executives envision the new show as a more casual affair. The brothers won’t be on site, but will instead hold forth from a remote location. Fans will get some analysis of the game as it proceeds ,but they will also hear historical perspective, quick quips and more, including cameos from iconic athletes, current players and celebrities. ESPN will keep a multi-box format on screen so the big-star athletes don’t take up the entire screen. ESPN tested a similar execution last year on ESPN2.
The original “MNF” broadcast will continue. It was led last season by Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Louis Riddick, John Parry and veteran sideline reporter Lisa Salters. That broadcast will air on ESPN, and, in some weeks, on ABC, and that team will return.
But the sports-media giant has for years longed for the presence of a sports commentator with celebrity status on “MNF.” Executives have for several years tried to lure Peyton Manning into the fold, and even considered hiring Tony Romo for the broadcast before CBS offered him a whopping $17 million per year to stick around for its Sunday-afternoon football showcase.
The Manning brothers — Peyton, known for his time as quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, Eli, remembered for playing the same position for the New York Giants — ought to lend new momentum to a key strategy ESPN has employed during Pitaro’s time at the helm. “Mega-casts,” or different broadcasts of the same event tailored to specific audiences, have played an increasing role at the company, with executives testing out game telecasts aimed at the younger viewers of Disney cable sibling Freeform; at aficionados of the company’s Marvel characters; and at fans who want broadcasts seasons with information about sports betting or chatter from celebrities and former athletes. The ESPN chief even has plans for a Super Bowl “mega-cast” when Disney gains rights to that sports showcase in 2026.
Building up the concept has helped Disney lure new and expanded sports-rights deals with big leagues, Pitaro told Variety in a recent interview. “We know from all of our meetings that audience expansion is probably the number one priority for our leagues, and it’s the recurring theme and the common denominator across all of the conversation: ‘How can you guys help us appeal to and attract new fans?’” he said.
Even as it has tried to pair Peyton Manning with “MNF,” ESPN has built a broader relationship with him. His Omaha Productions started working with ESPN and Walt Disney in 2019 by launching “Peyton’s Places,” an ESPN Plus program that offered a light-hearted look at important moments in the history of the NFL. ESPN said the program “has developed into ESPN Plus’ most extensive franchise.” Meanwhile, Omaha Productions has five new series in process of being made, in tandem with NFL Films. One is “Abby’s Places,” centered around soccer star Abby Wambach. Another is “Rowdy’s Places,” built around combat-sports veteran Ronda Rousey. Other “Places” series are constructed around Eli Manning, David Ortiz and Vince Carter.
“This partnership with ESPN and The Walt Disney Company reflects an ongoing, shared commitment to offering fans fun, innovative content,” said Peyton Manning, in a prepared statement. “ESPN+ has been a terrific partner for Omaha Productions as we built out The Places franchise and we’re excited to co-create a new MegaCast format that will have something for everyone.”