DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Monday Night Football

Rookie Redskins' quarterback sensation Robert Grifin (RGIII)
Last night, it took the Washington Redskins a little more than 3 hours to defeat arch-rivals the New York Giants on ESPN's Monday Night Football. But that 3-hour live sports show took 5-and-a-half full days of intense preparations to air.  And one day before, ESPN executive editor John Walsh, in DC for the game, gave a brief glimpse into the highlights of that hectic week preceding the widely-watched event.

Walsh, speaking on sports and sports reporting at an Inside Media session at the Newseum, joked that after 25 years at ESPN he has acquired "crazy uncle status." "I can say whatever I want and no one has to listen," he said. But his audience did a lot of listening, especially when he gave an insider's take on Monday Night Football.

The week begins with a lengthy meeting on Wednesday concerning the upcoming game. Decisions are made there concerning what approach will be taken. Of course, those decisions are based on the teams playing and the importance of the game. Storylines are suggested. The best are kept and developed. The others scrapped, never to see the light of broadcast.

"We set the background on the production," Walsh explained. Thursday and Friday are devoted to developing graphic packages and more background preparation. Some of these will be used during the game; others will appear as promotions on Countdown and other related sports shows.The commentators, Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico, the on-field reporters, and the rest of the huge crew arrive in the city of the home team on Saturday. There the camera crew scouts positions, while the on-air talent views the hometeam practice. That night, Gruden, Tirico, and others, interview up to 20 members of the home team and coaching staff. Some of those interview segments are used on-air, while others are off-the-record for background information.

On Sunday, the same procedure is used for the visiting team. But Sunday is also the day for Gruden, a former NFL coach, to conduct "a locker room coaching sessions," with all the key personnel on the Monday Night ESPN squad. In these sessions, Gruden gets quite specific, hoping to give viewers a believable taste of insider action. NFL teams have complicated names for their favorite plays. Gruden reviews the most often used. For example, he will say something like "sidewinder stepdown 674 left winken, blinken, and nod." If those present understand what that play is and how it works, Gruden's audience is expected to knock 3 times. If there is uncertainty, the play gets reviewed.

On game day, every member on the ESPN team is at the field by 1 p.m., doing their last-minute preparations prior to the 8:30 kickoff. After the final whistle and post-game interviews, "everyone moves out of there and gets ready for next week," Walsh said.

There is no doubt that huge ratings for Monday Night Football make it a valuable property. In 2011, ESPN renewed its contract with the National Football League for 8 years, meaning they have the rights to broadcast the games until 2021.  And the cost of that contract - an estimated $15.2 billion.

Walsh readily admits that one of the biggest changes about sports is its emergence as a huge financial business. "I don't think it will be too long before we will be using the 't" (for trillion) for the business of sports. It's a whole different game," Walsh said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Walsh was joined on the panel by George Solomon, long-time sports editor of the Washington Post and now a professor at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland. Asked how Washington Post preparations for a big in-town Monday Night game differs from those outlined by Walsh, Solomon joked, saying "It all involves getting Wilbon (popular Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon) to the game on time. And by on time, that's 5 minutes after kickoff. For Wilbon, that is on time."

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