The Highlight Zone 'Monday Night Football' at ESPN's restaurant is a strange game. Berman's there. Gifford's there. But all your rowdy friends should go elsewhere tonight.

December 14, 1998|By KEN FUSON | KEN FUSON,SUN STAFF

A RE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?!

Hey, bud, settle down. The game doesn't start for another four hours. And let's get something straight: You're not ready for some football. You're not close to ready. You don't know the rules.

That's right, the rules. Don't think you can just stroll into the ESPN Zone and grab a front-row table. This is "Monday Night Blast," the pre-game and halftime show for ABC's "Monday Night Football," broadcast live from the Inner Harbor. And this is serious prime-time television.

They're going to tell you where to sit and when to clap and how loud to clap and when to stop clapping and when to chant, "HE COULD GO ALL THE WAY!" during the halftime show.

They're going to hand you a list of the rules as soon as you walk in the door: "Please refrain from getting up, waving, holding up signs, or otherwise causing a disturbance." In other words, don't even think about acting like your average face-painted, beer-chugging, bratwurst-burping football fan.

Got a ticket? You're lucky. The ESPN Zone is open for business, but only 125 fans are allowed in the restaurant's "Screening Room," from which the show is televised. Early in the season, you could grab a front-row seat for $75. No more. Corporations gobbled them all.

Three groups bought all the tickets to last Monday's game -- a land development company, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association and Budweiser. Take it easy on the Bud, bud. Once the show starts, there won't be any bathroom breaks. It's in the rules.

Let's see, this is Week 14 of the NFL season. This game features Green Bay vs. Tampa Bay -- "the Bay of Pigs," Chris Berman used to call it, back when the teams stunk. You'll meet Berman, your "Blast" host, later. He's out back in the trailer.

Frank Gifford? Yeah, he's here, too, but don't blink. He and Berman are the stars of the 8 p.m. pre-game show. They flew in earlier today -- Berman on a charter, Gifford on a commercial flight.

Look around. This "Screening Room" is something else, isn't it? You won't see a place like it this side of a Las Vegas sports `` book. The main television screen looks about the size of the Domino Sugars sign. It's surrounded by a dozen smaller televisions.

The equipment for tonight's show is already in place. There are five cameras, four tape machines, a Steadicam (carried around by hand) and a crane that holds Berman's TelePrompTer. It's amazing how many people (two dozen) and how much time (all day) it takes to produce pre-game and halftime shows that together fill exactly 19 minutes of air time.

Something new

Of course, this isn't just another football game. This is "Monday Night Football," a prime-time mainstay for 28 seasons. This is the first year ABC has produced a pre-game show, let alone one broadcast live before a cheering audience in a working restaurant.

"We started from scratch," says Bill Bonnell, the show's producer. "Everyone was very skeptical. We were messing with an American tradition."

And?

"We have exceeded expectations."

Speaking of expectations, don't count on a return visit from ABC next year. Although nothing official has been decided, an ESPN Zone is planned for Manhattan. Expect the show to move there.

But Baltimore still has a couple of weeks left. It's 4: 45 p.m. The trailer door swings open, and out bounces Berman, followed by the woman who does his hair and makeup. Not that it matters. There is only so much hair to work with, and only so much that makeup can do for a man whose appearance has been compared so often to Fred Flintstone that you half expect him to walk around barefoot.

Berman is, in short, a Regular Guy -- a little rumpled, a few pounds overweight, a television star who has the temerity to actually perspire when placed in front of a hot, bright light. He's also a five-time winner of the Sportscaster of the Year award and one of the country's most popular, funny and imitated sports announcers.

"What American wouldn't want to sit down and watch a football game with Chris Berman?" Bonnell asks. "He's like Elvis to these people."

The 43-year-old Berman started with ESPN in 1979, back when the network relied on Australian Rules Football and demolition derbies. He quickly developed a following for his goofy player nicknames -- Chuck "New Kids on" Knoblauch -- pop culture references and home run calls: Backbackbackbackback!

The day before, Berman spent 17 hours at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., emceeing two shows and watching as many pro football games as his eyes could handle.

"I'm exhausted," he says.

But there's work to do. Berman's stage in Baltimore is a stool that sits on a three-foot-high platform overlooking the customers. His first job is to chat with ABC affiliates in Tampa Bay, Milwaukee and Green Bay.

Gifford walks in. Time to rehearse.

"There's the big man," he says to Berman.

"How ya doin', Frank?"

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