Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN Are Feeling Great About Future of 'Monday Night Football'

15th Annual Sports Business Journal Awards - Arrivals
15th Annual Sports Business Journal Awards - Arrivals / Theo Wargo/GettyImages

ESPN's Monday Night Football broadcast will begin a brand-new chapter this upcoming season after signing Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to become the network's No. 1 broadcasting team. The two are arguably the most famous broadcasting pairing in football with the capability to launch ESPN's weekly production into the stratosphere as far as ratings and viewership go.

ESPN will be helped along in that endeavor by what appears to be an absolutely loaded slate of MNF games in 2022. Over the last few years, the quality of the games ESPN has been tasked to broadcast has been inconsistent in the eyes of the fans. Last season began to change that perception as Steve Levy, Louis Riddick, and Brian Griese presided over 10 one-score games, including a Week 1 overtime affair between the Ravens and Raiders and the delightfully bizarre Patriots-Bills contest in which New England passed only three times.

This upcoming year promises more of the same. The schedule will be kicked off by Russell Wilson's return to Seattle and an NFC Championship Game rematch in the first four weeks. All in all, Monday Night Football will feature eight head-to-head matchups featuring teams who made the postseason the previous season, three more than in 2021. And that's before taking into account ESPN's Week 18 doubleheader, which will be announced as the season winds down and will likely spotlight playoff teams.

Chairman of ESPN Jimmy Pitaro spoke to The Big Lead at the 2022 Sports Business Journal Awards and said everybody is excited about what next season holds.

"We love it, we love the slate, we love the schedule. It starts with Russell Wilson returning to Seattle. As you know, the team is incredibly energized. There's quality from the first game to Week 17," Pitaro said. "And then of course, with the new deal that we struck with the NFL, we now have that Week 18 doubleheader. We don't know what those two games are because those are games with playoff implications. So we decided towards the end of the season, the league decides what those games would be.

"But yeah, we're incredibly excited. We had Joe and Troy on campus in Bristol this week and we had about 200, maybe 300 employees on campus for a town hall. And they were amazing, really a morale boost for the team to see them in person on campus. And then today we announced that Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Dan Orlovsky will be our second team for games. We have a couple of ABC games this year. And then with the new deal that kicks in in ‘23 we'll have some additional ABC games. So, you know, more inventory, more talent within the ABC, ESPN, Disney family, we're excited."

Burke Magnus, the head of programming for the network, said more of the same about the upcoming schedule and how the 2022 season will be for the Worldwide Leader.

"I think it's a quantum leap for us," he said. "The floor has been raised. I don't look at any of [the games] with any real worry that they won't deliver. And then the upside on a couple of big matchups is significant. To get that Rams-Packers game, I love Bills-Bengals, I love Bengals-Browns, I love getting an NFC East matchup. So I feel really good about it, actually."

Further good news came down the pipeline recently for ESPN as the NFL announced it would permit "flex" scheduling for the last six weeks of MNF starting in 2023, when the new rights deals kick in. This allows for the league to change matchups at the end of the year if it's clear the one scheduled was not going to portray riveting football. Flex scheduling is permitted for the windows CBS and Fox hold on Sunday afternoons, but to this point the league had been reticent to change primetime matchups for all sorts of reasons.

But no more. ESPN will benefit from the change quite a bit, as Pitaro explained on the red carpet before he received the network's Best in Sports Media award.

"We worked hard at that from probably the first conversation that we had with the NFL on our renewal, we made it clear to the league that we really needed flex scheduling. Starting with the '23 season, so the new deal, we will get it and it kicks in in Week 12. And we're optimistic in terms of what that's going to mean in terms of quality of games, in terms of ratings. Only time will tell, but it seems to be working well for the other guys. So we're pretty optimistic."

The future of Monday Night Football is bright. Buck and Aikman will lead the charge as ESPN goes into the 2022 season with momentum.