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Behind the Scenes at MNF, Part I: The Personalities

I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend the day with ESPN as the Monday Night Football train came rolling into Philadelphia this week. Throughout the day, we'll take a look at one of the largest traveling shows in sports for the biggest program in cable television history (well, the cast of High School Musical was unavailable, so we're stuck with football). It's quite a production.

In part one, we look at the personalities of Monday Night Football.

booth_8211.jpg(All photos by Dan Levy)

The trend these days in television punditry seems to be that more people means a better product. Sporting events are often looked at more for who is covering the event than the teams competing. It's not just sports, as outfits like CNN have managed to fit eight or nine people on the screen at once to "rumble, bumble and stumble" their way to a collective point. In its own way, ESPN manages to keep its abundance of big-name stars very structured. Three-man booth. Three-man pregame show. Three-man pre-pregame show. Two-woman sideline reporting leading up to the game on both the pregame show and the pre-pregame show. And at halftime, a one-man highlight reel.

It's a lot to keep track of, but in a way, ESPN does a good job at doing just that. Everyone knows their roles and sticks to them. For the sake of this exercise, we thought it best to dissect the personalities involved in the flagship show for the World Wide Leader, but limit it to the people at the stadium on gameday.

Pregame Show:

schtu_8166.jpgThe ESPN pregame show bounces from Bristol, Conn., to the weekly location, with veteran anchor and boo-yaist Stuart Scott handling the traffic cop duties. Scott is adept at directing that traffic, but his vocal cadence and self-composed dialect are a taste that's hard to acquire for many. In other words, you either like his act or you don't. It seems the biggest drawback with Scott is that his catch-phrases aren't really all that catchy. How many times in one career can the Lord say an athlete "has got to rise up?" Scott has tried to evolve, and has eliminated some of his old material to stay relevant, but the fact that he has "material" in the first place says something about his role at ESPN. That said, Scott does bring his own "big-game" feel to the telecast, but it seems as though Scott is trying to grab too much of the spotlight, unlike, say, Trey Wingo, his colleague and a solid professional host running things up in the studio.

Each week, Scott works the pregame show with two of the greatest players in the history of the sport in Steve Young and Emmitt Smith. young_8170.jpgIn a profession cluttered with ex-jocks turned analysts, Young is the best. Young could talk about anything and sound like he's an expert on the subject, probably because he is. He's the best in the game. The odd thing about Young is that, while he's undoubtedly the best left-handed quarterback in the history of the sport, you wouldn't even think he was an athlete if he walked past you. Funny aside: I was waiting to go to the stadium, sitting in the hotel lobby with a gentleman who didn't realize that Young was sitting a few feet behind him. He was completely oblivious to the fact that a guy of that stature in the game was a few feet away. And I think that's how Young likes it. He's there to do his job because he likes his job. And it shows. During the game, while others working on the pre- and postgame shows lounged on couches watching the game get out of hand, Young was alert at a computer terminal, undoubtedly researching some obscure statistic he'd use later that night. That, or trying to fix the financial crisis. Definitely one of those ... and I might trust him equally with either.

emmitt_8169.jpgSmith plays the yin to Young's omnipresent yang. Young brings insightful commentary to the telecast, while Smith brings, well, Emmitt Smith. And he wants you to know he's Emmitt Smith. It comes off in his smile, his attire, his cocksure lean that was parodied in the postgame interview by Donovan McNabb. He's Emmitt Smith, and you better well know it. If only he could speak with as much confidence as he exudes. Smith has gotten better in his time with ESPN, but his reputation has grown more for his blunders than his in-depth analysis. And yes, I'd love to hear him say "in-depth analysis."

As a group, the pregame crew doesn't have much involvement with the rest of the production. They have their own meetings, their own green room, their food, their own everything. They are in the stadium, but on their own island on the sidelines.

Sideline Reporters:
tafoya_8183.jpgIf you watched a game last year, you'd notice that Suzy Kolber and Michele Tafoya were a prominent part of the telecast. This year, they don't exist. Kolber and Tafoya aren't even part of the gameday production meeting. They do meet each week with the teams, but on the day of the game most of their work is done via updates that run every 20 minutes during SportsCenter and the pregame shows. After the game actually starts, one will show up on camera for 10 seconds after the first half and maybe -- maybe -- later if someone's leg falls off. In Monday's game, Tafoya was active on the sidelines, talking throughout the telecast with people in both the production truck and the booth to give updates on injuries and supply potential storylines. But the producers never threw it to her for on-air reports.

kolber_8175.jpgBy the sound of it, neither woman is happy about the situation. I had the chance to sit down with Kolber before the game an asked her what her thoughts were on the changes to the sideline reporting role.

"It's frustrating because when I originally jumped on board with Sunday Night Football, the concept was that we were going to redefine the role of sideline reporter. And we did, I felt successfully, in fact. It was sort of mirrored across the network for all sideline reporters to be more involved [with] more storytelling. It was disappointing when it was decided that we would have less input into the game. Right now, it's pretty limited to ... it has to be major news."

Note: the full interview with Kolber will be available here on Friday.

Getting the chance to speak with Kolber and Tafoya, both on and off the record, there is no doubt that, while part of a select group of trailblazing women in the sports media industry, each has developed amazing sense of self-awareness and humility. Tafoya, who was born and raised in California, has adopted a midwestern sensibility that is honest and refreshing. Kolber is seemingly never without a smile. She's as nice as they come in the business. But there is a sense that if she needed to, she'd kill you in five seconds, only because it wouldn't be as enjoyable for her kill you in four. And in this business, that's not a bad thing.

The Booth:
kornheiser_8200.jpgSay what you will about the three-man booth, and say what you do about the role of Tony Kornheiser, but for ESPN, it works. Listen, you may hate Tony in the booth. You may think he takes away from the telecast. One pundit privately suggested that Kornheiser's performance on Monday Nights is more deserving of games played on Friday Nights. Even Kornheiser isn't sure about his ability in the booth.

"I think the broadcast is better this year than last year, I think it was better last year than the year before, so i think it's an upward arc," he said. "Am I better? I don't know if I'm any better. It still doesn't play to what I do best. ... I think the broadcast is better, so I'm a part of that. At worst, I'm just holding it back from being REALLY good, and at best I'm part of something that gets better all the time."

If nothing else, Tony is a showman. He always captures an audience if he wants it, even if it's just a handful of people walking by in a hotel corridor. After the game, when I convinced Tony to be a guest on my "On the DL" podcast once a month to in some way satiate his radio fanbase, he replied by asking, "have I ever said no to you before?" And that's the thing -- for all his curmudgeony reputation, I didn't see Tony say no to anybody. A picture, a funny story, taking a few kids on a tour of the booth. Tony did it all, and seemed happy to do so.

jaws_8223.jpgRon Jaworski is the best Xs and Os guy in the business. He's a former player. He's a very successful businessman. He doesn't need Monday Night Football. But he's great at it, and he loves it. In over a decade in sports media, never have I come across a person with more enthusiasm for his job, and for the game. And it shows on each and every telecast, each and every play. In addition to that, the man is constantly smiling. Constantly. You'd think it was just for the show of the camera, but off camera as well. Jaws is living the dream.

Last but not least is the man who holds everything together. One of the hardest jobs in sports is the play-by-play announcer. Especially in a three-man booth where it's your job to play traffic cop for the analyst and, in this case, antagonist. Mike Tirico is quite adept at handling the two personalities seated to his right. And he does so while calling the game with professionalism and the right amount of excitability.

tirico_8197.jpgTirico isn't a star. He's not Al Michaels, Bob Costas or maybe even Joe Buck, but that plays to his strength. Tirico is understated by design. It's not about him. It's about the game. It's about his partners in the booth. It's about the quarterback fighting with the head coach or the young returner with speed to burn. And he's like that off-air as well. He'll stop and talk with everyone. He'll sign an autograph or listen to a story or share a laugh. On a show that boasts some big names, big personalities and big egos, Tirico is a refreshing balance.

Next we will take a look the behind-the-scenes preparation for the game, and how the production crew is ready for every scenario before it happens. To listen to full interviews with Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski, visit On the DL's 100th Episode Extravaganza.

By Dan Levy  |  December 18, 2008; 8:42 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Week 13: Rosen, Ryan and Myers | Next: Behind the Scenes at MNF, Part II: The Puppeteers

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