ABC, 'MNF' leave big legacy together

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Associated Press
Published December 26, 2005

From its inception, ABC's Monday Night Football was a risky experiment that defied American sports tradition. From Howard Cosell's pontification to Don Meredith's down-home songs to Dennis Miller's arcane analogies, it dominated TV viewing in homes and bars across the nation.

In short, it was exactly what ABC Sports boss Roone Arledge hoped it would be.

It was theater.

Television sports reaches the end of one era tonight when ABC signs off on its prime-time weeknight coverage of the NFL for the final time and hands off to sister network ESPN.

ABC's 555th Monday night game is itself of little consequence: The dismal New York Jets play the New England Patriots, who have clinched the AFC East. The series switches networks next season, when ESPN begins paying $1.1-billion per year for rights in an eight-year deal.

ESPN didn't exist when ABC began its MNF run Sept.21, 1970, with the Jets at Cleveland. It was the beginning of 36 seasons of one of television's most valuable franchises and the longest-running prime-time sports series ever.

Keith Jackson did play-by-play and ex-quarterback Meredith shared analysis and wisecracks with Cosell that night. The three-man booth was new for sports television. But then, so was this whole idea, the invention of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and Arledge.

After much haggling Arledge persuaded reluctant ABC higher-ups to sign off on the deal, but then Rozelle almost pulled the rug out from under him.

"He said, "Of course, you understand we have to offer it to CBS and NBC first because of existing contracts,"' Arledge said. "I was about to slit my throat."

The other two networks passed and the deal went to ABC for $8.5-million a year. That figure eventually ballooned to $550-million a year, half of what ESPN will pay.

The first-year rating was 18.5 with a 31 percent share of the audience. When Frank Gifford replaced Jackson to do play-by-play the next year, the rating went up to 20.8.

Some of the more memorable Monday night moments include:

Tony Dorsett setting a record with a 99-yard run for Dallas against Minnesota on Jan. 3, 1983.

Green Bay topping Washington 48-47 on Oct.17, 1983. The teams combined for 1,025 yards of offense in the highest-scoring MNF game.

Miami ending Chicago's shot at an undefeated season, beating the Bears 38-24 on Dec. 2, 1985, as alumni from the Dolphins' undefeated 1972 team cheered for their record to be protected. The game set an MNF record with a 29.6 rating and 46 share.

Cosell announcing in the middle of the broadcast on Dec.8, 1980, that John Lennon had been shot and killed.

Brett Favre throwing for 399 yards and four touchdowns in Green Bay's 41-7 victory over Oakland on Dec.22, 2003, one day after the sudden death of his father.

Over the years, the package changed. Meredith left for NBC in 1974 before returning three years later. Arledge moved to head ABC's news division in 1977. Cosell departed in 1983.

Some ex-players-turned-announcers stayed longer than others. Fred Williamson never made it out of the preseason in 1974. Gifford stuck around 28 years.

Al Michaels took over play-by-play duties in 1986 and will follow the series to ESPN next season, joined by ex-quarterback Joe Theismann, who provided one of the more dramatic MNF moments in 1985 when his leg was broken on a sack by Lawrence Taylor.