ESPN wandered the “Monday Night Football” announcing booth desert for years, waiting for a miracle or Tony Romo-like prophet. The network wound up with the “Boogermobile.” Now-disgraced ex-NFL head coach Jon Gruden occupied the analyst chair – and those were the good times, for a while.
On Monday, with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman making their “MNF” debut on the network for Russell Wilson’s Denver Broncos debut against his former team, the Seattle Seahawks, ESPN has reached the Promised Land.
No disrespect to any of the gentlemen who previously wore the headset, but no one would include those names in the same tier as Howard Cosell or Al Michaels or Frank Gifford or Don Meredith.
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Aikman and Buck have the built-in chemistry and on-air bona fides worthy of primetime. And finally, the wishes from ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, have been answered.
“I think it was far from urgent,” ESPN executive vice president for event and studio production Stephanie Druley said on a call with reporters last month. “There was a lot of serendipitous occurrences that had to happen to get us here today.
“If you had told me last year at the end of the season that I would be sitting here today, I would not have believed that because I think we were in a place where we were building a team, but still thinking about long-term and what long-term looked like, and the opportunity was there.”
Aikman appeared destined to become Prime Video’s Thursday Night Football analyst, a job that ultimately went to Kirk Herbstreit. The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and three-time Super Bowl champion spoke last week of a relationship with Fox that had broken down over time. Fox had little interest in re-signing Aikman (its eyes had already transitioned to Tom Brady). ESPN swooped in.
“It’s only natural when you do have a property like ‘Monday Night Football,’ you’re going to explore the people that are out there and available,” Druley said.
Who would ESPN pair with Aikman? The answer became obvious once another opportunity presented itself: Buck.
Buck had been with Fox for 27 years and developed into one of the most prominent voices on sports television from the Super Bowl to the World Series. Buck had one year left on his contract, but ESPN traded a Penn State-Purdue college football game to let him out early.
Both men will be paid handsomely for their talent; Aikman signed a five-year, $90 million contract, according to the New York Post, and Buck makes around $15 million per year.
Being together, though, is more of a comfort for the two longtime friends.
“There’s so much unsaid, understood, choreography that comes after X number of years that it’s not that easy when you start with somebody new,” Buck said. “Not to say that it can’t be great pretty much right out of the gate.
“All of that stuff is built up over time, and you can’t fake that.”
The pair familiarized themselves with how ESPN operates during a preseason game in Seattle last month. They left at halftime.
“If it was an issue,” Buck said, “we would have stood there for another half of football and worked some of those things out.”
Their employment at ESPN creates other programming opportunities for the pair. If Scott Van Pelt wants either of them to stick around for a post-game “SportsCenter” segment, they will. But they were hired to do “Monday Night Football.” That is priority No. 1 – for Buck, Aikman and ESPN.
“When we were whiteboarding our ultimate booth shortly after the end of the regular season, Troy and Joe were at the top of that list for all of us,” Druley said. “For me, they are simply the best team out there.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.