Monday Night Football (MNF) is a live television broadcast of the National Football League. Originally airing on the ABC network from 1970 to 2005, Monday Night Football was the second longest running prime time show on American broadcast network television (after CBS' 60 Minutes) and one of the highest-rated, particularly among male viewers. ABC aired a total of 555 Monday night games. On April 18, 2005, the NFL announced that Monday Night Football would be televised on ESPN in 2006, ending a 36-year run on ABC.
Monday Night Football enjoyed success throughout its 36-year run, with the NFL using the national spotlight as a way of rewarding the best teams and biggest stars from the previous season. However, that process has come under fire, due to late-season contests involving promising teams whose fortunes had declined during the course of the season. Two examples came during the 1981 season, when neither of that season's Super Bowl teams—the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals—had played on Monday night, and 1999, when the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl after not having appeared in a Monday night game during the year. Franchises with the most Monday night appearances include the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, and Miami Dolphins. The most common Monday Night Football pairings are Denver vs. Oakland and Dallas vs. Washington, with each matchup having been televised 14 times. During the early 1960s, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle envisioned the possibility of playing at least one game weekly during prime time for a greater TV audience. An early bid in 1964 to play on Friday nights was soundly defeated, with critics charging that such telecasts would damage the attendance at high school games. Undaunted, Rozelle decided to experiment with the concept of playing on Monday night, scheduling the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions for a game on September 28, 1964. While the game was not televised, it drew a sellout crowd of 59,203 to Tiger Stadium, the largest crowd ever to watch a professional football game in Detroit up to that point. Two years later, Rozelle would build on this success as the NFL began a four-year experiment of playing on Monday night, scheduling one game in prime time on CBS during the 1966 and 1967 seasons, and two contests during each of the next two years. NBC followed suit in 1968 and 1969 with games involving AFL teams. During subsequent negotiations on a television contract that would begin in 1970, Rozelle concentrated on signing a weekly Monday night deal with one of the three major networks. After sensing reluctance from both NBC and CBS in disturbing their regular programming schedules, Rozelle spoke with ABC. Despite the network's status as the lowest-rated network, ABC was also reluctant to enter the risky venture. Only after Rozelle used the threat of signing with the independent Hughes Sports Network, an entity bankrolled by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, did ABC sign a contract for the scheduled games. Speculation was that had Rozelle signed with Hughes, many ABC affiliates would have pre-empted the network's Monday lineup in favor of the games, severely damaging potential ratings.
After the final contract for Monday Night Football was signed, ABC producer Roone Arledge immediately saw possibilities for the new show. Setting out to create an entertainment "spectacle" as much as a simple sports broadcast, Arledge hired Chet Forte, who would serve as director of the program for over 22 years. Arledge also ordered twice the usual number of cameras to cover the game, expanded the regular two-man broadcasting booth to three and used extensive graphic design within the show as well as "instant replay." One of the best remembered moments in Monday Night Football history occurred on December 8, 1980, yet had nothing to do with the game or football in general. During a game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, Howard Cosell broke the news of famed Beatle John Lennon's murder, news that stunned a nationwide audience. The 1982 television contract renewal also put ABC in the Super Bowl rotation for the first time, with Super Bowl XIX in 1985. A second renewal of the television contract gave them XXII in 1988. Along with the renewed television contract, ABC was awarded the telecast to Super Bowl XXV and Super Bowl XXIX, and the first round of NFL playoffs. The Monday Night Football team of announcers anchored the telecasts, except for the first of two Wild Card playoff games, where ESPN's Sunday Night NFL crew of Mike Patrick and Joe Theismann anchored that telecast. However, the original crew for one of the two Wild Card playoff games in 1990 and 1991 consisted of Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil (both of whom did college football broadcasts for ABC during those two seasons). The October 17, 1994 episode between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos featured a duel between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and John Elway. With 1:29 left to play in the game, Elway scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Broncos ahead 28-24. But then Montana led the Chiefs on a 75-yard drive to score the game-winning touchdown with just 8 seconds to play. The final score was Chiefs 31, Broncos 28. In 1997, ABC began using a scoring bug showing the game clock and score throughout the entire broadcast. Unexpectedly, comedian Dennis Miller joined the cast in 2000 along with Dan Fouts. The move was ultimately regarded as a bust by many viewers and commentators. ABC briefly considered adding popular political commentator Rush Limbaugh before Miller was added to the broadcast team, despite having no prior sports broadcast experience. Miller demonstrated a knowledge of the game and its personalities, although at times he tended to lapse into sometimes obscure analogy-riddled streams of consciousness similar to his "rants." ABC ultimately ended up setting up a Web page dedicated to explaining Miller's sometimes obscure pop culture references.
The 2001 season of MNF featured a season-long campaign promoting the anticipated 20,000th point scored in MNF history. Broncos kicker Jason Elam completed the task with a field goal during a 38-28 loss at Oakland on November 5. The three points also put Elam over 1,000 points for his career. In 2002, both Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts were dropped and John Madden joined Al Michaels in a two man booth, which is arguably one of the most successful of all time. Madden was a former coach for the Oakland Raiders, namesake of the seminal Madden NFL video game series, and successful broadcaster with the CBS and Fox networks for 21 years before joining Monday Night Football. After suffering through several years of dismal Pro Bowl ratings, ABC considered moving the game to Monday night. In February 2003, Madden declined to serve as color commentator for the game in Hawaii, citing his fear of flying; former MNF personality Dan Fouts took his place. The following year, the Pro Bowl remained on Sunday, but was moved to ABC's sister network, ESPN. Despite high ratings, ABC lost millions of dollars on televising the games during the late 1990s and 2000s. That, and the rise of ABC's ratings on Sunday night, and their wish of protecting their Desperate Housewives franchise (which they knew would be costly), resulted in the April 18, 2005 decision that ABC and the NFL had decided to end their 36-year partnership, with Monday Night Football being aired on ESPN starting with the 2006 season, a move some Disney shareholders have criticized. The final ABC Monday Night broadcast was on December 26, when the New York Jets hosted the New England Patriots, from Giants Stadium. Eerily, both the first and last ABC Monday Night Football telecast games ended with a score of 31-21 with the Jets on the losing end. Vinny Testaverde holds the distinction of throwing the last TD pass in ABC's MNF telecast history; it was to wide receiver Laveranues Coles. Also, Testaverde's pass set an NFL record: most consecutive seasons with a touchdown pass, 19 seasons (1987-2005). Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel in the last ABC MNF broadcast on 26 December 2005 set a record of note, becoming the first player to catch 2 touchdown passes and record a quarterback sack in the same game. The final play of the ABC era was a Pats kneeldown by 44-year old reserve quarterback Doug Flutie. John Madden said at the show's ending "They can take football away from ABC on Monday nights, but they can't take away the memories."
While the ESPN broadcasts will have the MNF name and heritage, NBC (like ABC) is a broadcast network, whereas ESPN is a cable service not freely available to all Americans, though any ESPN games will still air on free broadcast TV in the home markets of each team. For that reason, NBC, not ESPN, will gain rights to the wild card doubleheader that has traditionally aired on ABC, as well as a share of the rotating rights to the Super Bowl (with CBS and Fox also in the mix). Also, John Madden, key MNF production personnel, and most recently Al Michaels have all elected to join NBC for its broadcasts. ESPN's first Monday night broadcast was on Monday, August 14, 2006, when the Oakland Raiders visited the Minnesota Vikings, publicized as the return of Randy Moss to Minnesota for the first time since the Vikings traded him after the 2004 season. The telecast debuted with brand-new graphics, including a time-score box placed in the lower center of the screen. These graphics will be exclusive to MNF, as other ESPN telecasts (including those on ABC) still use the time/score box which debuted in 2004 to coincide with SportsCenter's conversion to high-definition.