ESPN Prepares for Monday Night Football, COVID Style


Tonight kicks off the 50-year old American tradition of Monday Night Football, and ESPN is ready to launch its 15th season hosting the program. Even during a pandemic, ESPN has been preparing for a live broadcast under new protocols while staying true to its renowned coverage of the sport. During a media call, the new MNF commentator team, production executives, and reporters previewed the NFL season and shared how they have come together to bring football fans the entertainment they've been waiting for. 

This year, the network has had to scale down the number of people on site at a football game from approximately 225 to 130. "But that doesn't mean we've scaled back our ambition in any way," said Stephanie Druley, ESPN executive vice president of event and studio production. The network has moved some key positions to the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., to ensure health and safety for all involved in the production and coverage. 

ESPN has also been working with the NFL on adding a potential virtual fan element similar to what was shown at the virtual NFL Draft in April, in which people sent in their videos cheering for their teams (or booing opponents), so as to not completely lose that part of the fan experience. Depending on the team and location of a game, COVID-19 guidelines vary state by state and there will either be no fans in the stadium or limited seating allowed throughout the season. 

"I think without those big fan moments, there's going to be a need for the booth to expand upon what they’re seeing and to have the ability to tell stories and to go a little further in analysis," added Druley. The booth this year consists of three new commentators, up one from last year's two, who are veterans in the broadcast world of football but new to the MNF crew: Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick. "So I think that actually provides a really unique opportunity for these guys to gel really quickly. And it’s, again, another reason why I think we were really comfortable leading into three people up there."

Nine-year veteran to MNF Lisa Salters (and longest-tenured sideline reporter in MNF history) once again reprises her role as the "sideline reporter," but with an obstacle thrown in her way due to COVID-19 restrictions — she is no longer allowed on the sideline. "It's going to be challenging to do it, but it's going to challenge me to think outside the box, and there's nothing wrong with that," said Salters. 

From the booth perspective, Levy added, "I think you could make the argument [Salters] might be more valuable this season than in prior seasons, in a season where she can't be on the field, because of her news background and because this is a season where there is the potential for a lot of serious news, not just touchdowns and extra points. We are lucky to have Lisa in that spot, whether she winds up standing in the first row, wherever in the stadium or outside the stadium that might be."

Without the tens of thousands of screaming fans in the stadium, the MNF crew hopes to achieve a deeper news and storytelling angle, in addition to the play-by-play analysis, with three people in the booth this year, as Druley and Levy touched on. "If you're ever going to go with three voices in the booth, this would be the time, I think," said Levy. Because even with enhanced audio, "The stadium is just not going to shake," he explained. However, he added, there will be more time to discuss whatever points the commentators bring up, and to listen to the unique audio from the field, such as the quarterback yelling out signals, and communication between players, instead of the massive crowd noise. 

Even in the booth, the crew has been preparing to report under challenging social distancing guidelines. Druley explained that ESPN has had to move people out for spacing to ensure that the booth is not crowded.  "Steve is going to have a virtual spotter, which means he's looking at a screen and somebody is pointing to the sheet. There are things that you can't replicate in a conference room or in an audio booth, so those things are going to — we're going to have to feel that out as we go, but we're prepared for it," said Druley. "It's like playing the game; until you hit the field, you don't know. But everybody has been set up to succeed in really challenging circumstances."

Header Photo by Kelly Backus / ESPN Images