Does “Monday Night Football” matter any more?

Kicking Off the Week, Monday Night FootballYes, it’s still an exclusive-window game held the day after the usual Sunday NFL regimen, and it counts in the standings just the same.

Since its experimental beginnings in the late 1960s—just as the age of the Super Bowl was beginning—then-commissioner Pete Rozelle’s idea to build a highly-rated “event” around a single game in prime-time weeknight hours helped solidify the professional game atop the American spectator sports heap.

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Also in This Issue: Astros Clairvoyance; Best Baseball Book Nominees; The Localism of Boxers; Meb Keflezighi’s Farewell; Dr. J’s Long Island Return; Remembering Ray Robinson and Caulton Tudor

When ABC started “Monday Night Football” full-bore in 1970, it didn’t take long for it to take hold with an American television audience clamoring not only for football, but big-event programming on an otherwise drab first night of the week.

For 35 years, until it moved to ESPN, “Monday Night Football” was a ratings colossus, especially with Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and “Dandy” Don Meredith in the booth. The game on the field, and on the air under the savvy direction of Roone Arledge, was glorious spectacle.

According to television writer Wesley Hyatt, author of the 2007 book “Kicking Off the Week,” “Monday Night Football” is the second-most popular series in the history of American television, surpassed only by the equally venerable “60 Minutes,” which will celebrate its 50th anniversary on CBS next year.

Going up against the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Waltons” and succeeding was no small feat for professional football. In the 1970s, the broadcast television landscape was ideal for such dominance.Howard Cosell

When James Andrew Miller, author of an ESPN oral history, wrote last week that the cable sports giant could be giving up “Monday Night Football” when its contract expires in 2021, I tried to remember when I last watched that game, in that slot.

Maybe once or twice on ESPN, and usually when my hometown Atlanta Falcons were playing. Truth be told, “Monday Night Football” was eclipsed long before it moved from over-the-air television, and certainly when NBC began “Sunday Night Football.”

Not even John Madden, who offered MNF color commentary the last three years on ABC, could make that much of a difference.

That’s largely because of the saturation coverage of the league not only from a programming, but also a journalism standpoint.

In our on-demand media world, watching any game, at any time, even multiple games at once, is no big deal. The Red Zone flips from game to game, with constant in-game and “look-in” highlights. Twitter has been live-streaming Thursday night games, and now Amazon wants a slice of that action.

Football-starved fans in America get up early Sunday morning to watch a handful of mid-season NFL games from London, usually involving the dregs of the league (hello, Cleveland Browns?)

While “Monday Night Football” played a vital role in the mass popularization of the NFL—right up there with NFL Films, in my view—what made it distinctive is no longer the case.

Roone ArledgeThe spectacle is no longer one game, but the league as a whole, especially the media-propelled melodrama. In the fragmented, 24/7 media world, soap opera fare—Deflategate, anthem protests, domestic violence and sexual assault cases, concussions, etc.—is the drawing card, as much as the games themselves.

ESPN’s financial concerns, and its absurdly overpriced $2 billion annual contract to show “Monday Night Football,” have prompted the possibility of walking away from that program.

While it’s still a healthy ratings-driver, “Monday Night Football” long ago ceased being a narrative-driver for the NFL.

As Hyatt wrote, two years after ESPN got MNF:

“ESPN won’t regret having the biggest sports draw on Monday nights added to its lineup either. But the loss of what we knew as ‘Monday Night Football’ really hurts. For both football fans and TV viewers.”

A World Series for the Ages

  • Roger Angell has seen every one of them since World War II, and he writes elegantly on deadline about the Houston Astros’ first championship;Sports Illustrated, Houston Astros
  • Three years ago, after the Astros had suffered back-to-back 100-loss seasons, Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated predicted what just happened this week, and with future World Series MVP George Springer gracing the cover to boot;
  • Tom Verducci wrote this masterpiece on the greatness of the 2017 World Series, through Game 5;
  • More on George Springer from Bob Nightengale of USA Today;
  • As the World Series was reaching its climax, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News talked to a previous fall classic hero, Carl Erskine, who mastered the Yankees in 1953 although his Brooklyn Dodgers did not.

Baseball Miscellany

The finalists for the CASEY Award, which Spitball magazine names as the best baseball book of the year, and it’s an absolutely stellar list:

The judges are Steve Hermanos, Rich Puerzer, and Al Turnbull, and the winners will be announced in March, which means you have time to read all these books over the winter;

  • Being a good manager is not enough, as John Farrell, Joe Girardi and Dusty Baker found out, and is an absurd statement on the short-term thinking in too many front offices;
  • At the Public Books blog, Kieran Setiya, a philosophy professor at MIT, goes deep on baseball and philosophy, and takes on the notion of failure in the game, as well as superstition and sabermetrics;
  • From Wax Pack Gods, the history of the save, as featured on baseball cards;
  • Days after finishing up coverage of the World Series, longtime Bergen Record (N.J.) baseball writer Bob Klapisch lost his column (and job) and Tweeted out “on to free agency.” Last week the National Pastime Museum published his piece on Bob Gibson and the 1967 World Series, and I hope we’ll see more articles like this from him.

A Few Good Reads

  • From City Journal, why place matters for boxers, especially in the heavyweight division, from the recently published “The Boxing Kings,” by Paul Beston, the magazine’s managing editor;The Boxing Kings, Paul Beeston
  • On Saturday, the Louisville Orchestra debuted an “opera-rap-oratorio mashup” based on the life of Muhammad Ali, a hometown high-art tribute by 30-year-old maestro Teddy Abrams, who’s a protege of Michael Tilson Thomas eagerly embracing his civic role;
  • A Kickstarter project is underway for Ringside Seat, a new digital boxing magazine whose contributors include Shaun Assael, late of ESPN and a recent biographer of Sonny Liston, Carlo Rotella, Eric Raskin, Nigel Collins, William Detloff and others;
  • Meb Keflezighi, the emigre Eritrean marathoner who became one of the best Americans ever in that event, runs his final 26.2 miles Sunday in the New York Marathon. He’s retiring after the race at the age of 42, and has spent a good deal of his time since becoming a U.S. citizen proving his Americanness. Remember Darren Rovell’s asinine assertion (later walked back) that Keflezighi’s 2009 win in New York, the first for an American runner there in 27 years, didn’t mean as much since he wasn’t native-born? In 2005 Tim Layden prefigured the controversy, although Keflezighi and his family fled their homeland when he was 12;
  • Julius Erving, now 67, is being honored by the Nets on his old ABA stomping grounds of Long Island this weekend. Not by the New York Nets, who now play in Brooklyn, but the G-League Long Island Nets;
  • The ABA’s California influence includes the Anaheim Amigos and the Oakland Oaks, who are remembered at the Orange County Register;
  • From Atlas Obscura, fishing a barnacle-encrusted Spalding basketball out of the Atlantic Ocean, 500 miles off the coast of the Cape Verde Islands, only to toss it back into the sea;
  • While his collusion claim against the NFL winds through the maze of the court system, Colin Kaepernick is set to publish a book via a Random House imprint that has published Jay Z. and Ta-Nehisi Coates;
  • Texas Monthly examines the decline of high school football in areas of that football-mad state, especially where youth football numbers are down;Big and Bright, Texas high school football
  • At USA Today, Nancy Armour extends that issue nationwide, pointing to more concentrated hotbeds for prep football, especially in California and Florida and across the Deep South;
  • The post-mortems continue on the American youth soccer system after the U.S. crashed out of the 2018 World Cup: at These Football Times, Jon Townsend goes deep on developmental issues many thought weren’t all that serious;
  • At The Rumpus, Laura Laing saw the new 1970s Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs biopic, “Battle of the Sexes,” and wrote at length how that event recalled her coming-out struggles:

“I was struck by the horrifying thought that I had been deprived of my youth, in no small part, because of the secrecy, because of the trauma of hiding myself, and that I had embraced traditionalism because I could not be openly radical. This is a dramatic thought, and it is also just a fact. It is stunning to me because I cannot not fully appreciate the subtraction of myself, even in 2017, when I am legally married to my wife and looking forward to empty nesting with her for the remainder of our lives.”

Now Hear This

PassingsRay Robinson, Iron Horse

  • Ray Robinson, 96, a prolific magazine editor and author of biographies of Lou Gehrig, Christy Mathewson, Knute Rockne, Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg, several books about the New York Yankees and other non-sports subjects, including Will Rogers and anti-Semitism;
  • Caulton Tudor, 70, a longtime sports columnist at the Raleigh News & Observer and later at WRAL, and inducted into several sports Halls of Fame: North Carolina, ACC, U.S. Basketball Writers and more. No cause of death was announced, but he was writing about the ACC football season a week before his passing.

Off the Sporting Green

  • John U. Bacon, author of several books on Michigan, Big Ten and college football, has a Michigan sports twist to his newest book, to be published on Tuesday, about an event during World War I. “The Great Halifax Explosion” (William Morrow & Co.) describes the heroic rescues after the Mont-Blanc, a French munitions liner, detonated off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1917, with German U-boats nearby. This excerpt outlines the role of the central figure in the story, Joseph Ernest Barss, who founded the University of Michigan hockey program;The Great Halifax Explosion, John U. Bacon
  • Beware of media impresarios and their billions: Local New York-based websites DNAinfo and Gothamist were abruptly shut down this week by owner Joe Ricketts, not long after staffers voted to unionize. At Recode, John Ness, a former DNAinfo editor-in-chief and editorial director at AOL’s Patch (where I once worked), rightly surmises what many of us have had to learn the hard way: local news, the current pet crisis subject in the journalism field, just will not scale;
  • Novelist George Saunders, author of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is the second American to win the Man Booker Prize for fiction, which has been open to Yanks only since 2014;
  • From the excellent Open Culture site, a Top 10 list of Tom Waits’ favorite albums, and his always-eclectic taste includes Bohemian-Moravian bands and songs from Parchman prisoners in Mississippi recorded by the famed musical folklorist Alan Lomax.

The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 102, published Nov. 5, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.

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