Steve Levy is quick to answer when asked what he believes to be the strength of the Monday Night Football broadcast team. "The three of us are ego-free." He points to Brian Griese and Louis Riddick as two men who, while successful in their playing careers, were team players rather than singular superstars. Levy himself said he's never been "The Guy" during his lengthy career in broadcasting; he was always next to people like Stuart Scott or Scott Van Pelt.
He believes it all plays a big role in the success the trio has found as ESPN's bedrock for each week of Monday Night Football. Viewership across ESPN's MNF Megacast is up 20 percent overall from 2020 and up 22 percent from 2019. The trio and the production team are on an upward trajectory-- but there were big obstacles to overcome.
To start, it's a three-person team in the booth, breaking the mold in an industry where all the legendary names come in pairs. Levy, Griese, and Riddick were trying to find their footing in their rookie season on ESPN's marquee broadcast while juggling COVID protocols and empty stadiums. The network itself was coming off a stretch of heavily-criticized Monday Night Football booths. Even with the steady veteran presence of Lisa Salters, in her 10th season on MNF, it made for a complicated recipe to follow for success.
Like any maiden voyage, the crew had its ups and downs in that first season. But their overarching goal of making sure the focus stayed on the game was achieved.
"Last season we just wanted to sort of steady the ship, right? The Monday Night Football franchise, there's been so much talk about the booth and I never understood that. I mean, it's about the game, what's going on. That was our first collective goal," Levy told The Big Lead. "In-house we discussed, ‘Okay, let's get the attention off of us. Let's get it on the game where it belongs.’ I felt like we did that. Now the next piece of that is, let's go be great at it." "
Behind the camera, coordinating producer Steve Ackels has presided over Monday Night Football production since 2019. Like Levy, he felt the first season with the new team in 2020 went as well as could be hoped considering the circumstances, but 2021 would bring a noted improvement. The process began after last season, when the whole team was able to sit in a room together for the first time. Ackels told The Big Lead they gathered in Charlotte to review their tape from the year and were able to come together and generate chemistry organically. That last part is crucial for what this MNF team wants to produce.
"We're broadcasting a National Football League game and we're going to give it the full documentation, graphics, commentary, X’s and O’s, storytelling, all at the same time," Ackels said. "But we've all talked about, it doesn't have to be serious football every single second. We're gonna have fun. We're going to pick our moment, do it at the right spot at the right time."
Once everyone had the chance to grind tape, it was time to put those improvements to the test. Upon review, Levy felt he tried to do too much in his first year as the play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football.
"What I took away from the first season is I was trying to be first on everything. Like, as soon as it went into the receiver's hands, I was trying to have that name correct and the yard line correct and the yardage correct on every single play," Levy said. "And quite frankly, I watched a lot of the other top broadcasters and on a two-yard gain, they're never giving you that. They just don't. And so I was making myself nuts. I realized that when I don't go that far and I don't give you the yard, I don't give you a name, that actually gives Brian and Louis more space to get in some kind of great analysis. That's a win for the audience and that's a win for our show."
Levy knows his role and knows what his teammates have to offer. Griese and Riddick have their strengths as former players and, in Riddick's case, front office experience; Levy and Ackels praised the versatility the two bring to the table as analysts. Griese can break down what a quarterback sees or what an offensive coordinator is trying to accomplish on any given play, while Riddick knows the defensive coverage and both understand how to disseminate that information to an audience far less familiar with the nitty-gritty details of a gameplan than they are. Even if they occasionally need Levy to keep them on track.
"I really feel like my place in all this is the fan at home," Levy explained. "If I ask a question, I'm assuming that the fan at home would be asking the same question. Even if it's pedestrian to Brian and Louis, I'll still ask it. So I try to put myself in that spot and I try to keep them in check. There's a lot of complicated terminology that comes into play every week.
"The game is so sophisticated, the game is so complicated, any chance we can take people inside the NFL with the communication, I think it's fabulous. Brian and Louis have a knack for being able to teach people about the game with the right tone while also having a good time and not taking themselves too seriously."
One play last Monday night showcased how the pieces fit together when the booth is at its best. Early in the first quarter of Raiders-Chargers, Justin Herbert completed a pass to Jared Cook up the seam. Levy quickly and efficiently delivered the details. Then he fell quiet and let the audience sit in the swell of crowd noise.
The unfilled silence meant it didn't feel rushed or crowded when Griese broke out his graphics to explain what Cook did. He drew the route on-screen, explaining how Cook cut in, then up the hashmarks and how easy it was for Herbert to see it develop. Riddick chimed in to explain what coverage the defense was in, why Cook was open, and how offensive coordinator Joe Brady managed to exploit the weakness. Then it was on to the next play. The whole sequence took less than 30 seconds, but the transition from one voice to another was seamless and an audience member paying rapt attention would leave the broadcast more knowledgable than before.
That was only one moment in one game. It's the culmination of all those moments that make for a good broadcast. Monday featured more of those moments. On a fake punt, Levy called it out and Riddick identified how Hunter Renfrow managed to come down and make the tackle before seeing the replay.
The preparation the team goes through was obvious after the Raiders' first touchdown, a Derek Carr throw to Renfrow. Griese quickly explained that Renfrow ran a "China" route, then the production team ran a highlight reel of Renfrow and Cooper Kupp running that exact route in the games prior.
The 2021 season brought a fresh start, a chance to implement changes amidst a return to normalcy. Levy is happy the crowds are back in the stands. The team is allowed to meet with the home team before a given MNF game in person instead of over Zoom, which Levy said leads to more fruitful and meaningful interactions for the broadcast team to use to put on a good show. There is, however, the matter of the ManningCast, another in-network alternative to the Levy/Griese/Riddick booth. The viewership numbers slant heavily in favor of standard broadcast, but the conversation through the first three weeks revolved around what Peyton and Eli were up to rather than how the MNF team had built upon last year. For his part, Levy is all for whatever makes MNF succeed.
"I mean, it's Peyton and Eli Manning. I get it. You want to talk about star-studded careers, all-time greats, one Hall of Famer and one future Hall of Famer, I'm not surprised," he said. "Everything the Mannings touch turns to gold. We sort of knew this was coming and I’ve always been considered a company man and a team guy and I feel pretty lucky to be on their team. We’re all part of the ESPN family, you know? The ratings are really good collectively from Monday Night Football overall. That's good for everyone concerned."
The last aspect is certainly true. Even without the ManningCast numbers factored in, Monday Night Football is off to a better start in 2021 than the previous two years.
The pursuit of perfection is never-ending, though. Levy felt the team got better each week in 2020, lending MNF momentum for a good start this season.
"Yeah, we feel really good about where we are. I hate to be all coach-speak and all that, [but] we’re trying to get better every single week. And that's really where we were last year. It was really a work in progress. And so as the season went along, we thought we got better. The playoff game Baltimore - Tennessee we thought was our best game of the year, our last game."
It is early. The crew is only four games in. But for a broadcasting team building off a foundation established in a hectic 2020 season, Levy believes everyone is feeling good about their first month, and the best is yet to come.