Are we ready for some FOOTBALL?

The names have changed, but the strategy is the same as the 'Monday Night Football' team arrives in town

January 07, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

In the beginning, Roone Arledge created Monday Night Football, as ABC's prime-time lineup was without form, and there was a void in its ratings, and darkness was upon the brow of network executives.

And on that first day, back in 1970, the game was held in Cleveland, a city where many felt darkness was too rarely cleaved from light, as a reward for Browns owner Art Modell, who had convinced the Ford Motor Company to finance the newly begotten show. "I'll pay any price," Ford President Lee Iacocca had said unto Modell, now the owner of the Baltimore Ravens. "Just give me the eyeballs." And it would be so.

And for the announcers' booth Arledge brought forth the Mouth, known to his mail carrier as Howard Cosell, a lawyer and driven sports journalist who was given dominion over the broadcast to deliver great pronouncements about sport and society. And from the first day, the Mouth was widely beloved and, paradoxically, equally reviled. The Mouth ran around with a toupee and cigar, but he often complained about carrying the Jocks - former star athletes Don Meredith and Frank Gifford, the latter of whom replaced Keith Jackson in the show's second season.

And the three announcers were sometimes testy with one another, but also irreverent and charming and, thanks to the Mouth, insightful, and they were given great leeway to be so, as their corporate masters were after the broadest possible audience. As no other game was seen in every television market, the very presence of the three men on any fall evening was enough to cause a great hue and cry in the immediate surroundings; and the trio would often extol that town to the heavens, and producers would show lingering footage of illuminated skylines and local eateries, and city elders would behold that it was good. Reputations could be made or lost on Monday nights, and players would exhibit unprecedented intensity, as they knew their peers around the country were watching and assessing.

For years, some 20 million to 25 million souls beheld the game on ABC stations each Monday evening, as though it were somehow different from other football games that had been broadcast on other networks just the day before. And the network and the NFL and even the almighty sponsors themselves, after some initial palpitations over the Mouth, saw that it was good.

And Baltimore proudly played host to Monday Night Football at the height of its popularity in 1978, although some locals heckled the Mouth. "This would never happen in a major league city," he had exclaimed after two power failures at Memorial Stadium during a baseball broadcast earlier that year. And that stirred the wrath of Hyman Pressman, the city's comptroller and self-designated gadfly, who attempted to give the Mouth "Hymie's Dog House Award" without success. An injured Bert Jones led the Colts to victory on national television against the neighboring Washington Redskins, however, and, despite the size of the chip on the city's collective shoulder, the townsfolk beheld it as good.

And the three announcers were somehow seen as bigger than the two teams they described on the field below; they were celebrated and mocked and mimicked. Every comic trotted out his version of Cosell simply saying his name. Every youth allowed to stay up late enough to watch the game did his own schoolyard impression of Meredith's warbling "Turn out the lights, the party's over" when a game's fate had been clinched.

Yet nearly a generation would pass in Baltimore without the presence of Monday Night Football, as the city was afflicted by mediocre football and then, insultingly to its pride, an absence of the NFL altogether. Even after the arrival of the Ravens in 1996, mediocrity reigned once more for several years. All the while the Monday Night broadcast kept its distance, and did not materialize again in Baltimore until the team had proven itself at the highest orbit, winning the Super Bowl itself, the NFL's most glorious accolade. And that return visit - originally scheduled for September, but postponed after the terrorist attacks - finally falls today. And the city elders say it is good.

City pride

"It's a matter of pride," says Drew Berry, general manager of WMAR (Channel 2), which will air the show here. "The people of Baltimore want to see their city showcased on national TV."

Yea, the legend endures about the power of Monday Night Football, a mighty marriage of sport and commerce that spawned abundant riches for all and even a not-altogether complimentary made-for-television movie called Monday Night Mayhem to air next Monday on cable station TNT.

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