By The Washington Post
ESPN executives have chased Peyton Manning for years. Monday night, they finally had him where they’ve long wanted him: back on an NFL broadcast, though with a few catches.
Most Mondays this season, Manning will be at a friend’s warehouse in Denver that has been outfitted with a TV studio, sharing the screen and commentary duties for Monday Night Football with his younger brother, Eli, who will be beamed to the telecast on ESPN2 from his house in New Jersey.
The two kibbitz with famous guests, including expected appearances from Charles Barkley and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson during Week One, and offer analysis in a family-themed, travel-free arrangement. Or, in other words, exactly how Peyton Manning would like it.
For years, sports network executives have salivated after Manning, the telegenic Hall of Fame quarterback who has long seemed designed to thrive in a TV booth. A heartland icon, he has hosted Saturday Night Live with aplomb and served as a chummy pitchman for corporate America. “God bless you and God bless football,” he said at his Hall of Fame induction speech last month. The debut offered fans a long-awaited chance to hear his insights in real-time, unscripted — to learn whether he is as good as the industry always thought he would be, and how he stacks up to contemporaries like Tony Romo at CBS.
His arrival at ESPN signifies the latest progression in the network’s MegaCast strategy, offering alternate broadcasts to fans for big games. But it is also indicative of Manning’s own gravitational pull and the aspirations he has for his new production company, Omaha Productions. (“Calling a game from home with your brother sounds pretty good to me,” said another NFL analyst.)
Manning declined to be interviewed for this story, and those close to him know well his desire for message control. One sports media executive who has worked with Manning requested anonymity just to offer effusive praise.
“He’s the white whale of the industry,” the executive said. “If everything in America is a culture war right now, Peyton Manning bridges red states and blue states like few other people in the country. It’s, like, him and the Rock.”
Manning may have never called a game, but the very thought of his availability has rippled through sports TV for years. CBS went after Manning following his career-capping Super Bowl win in 2016. Network Chairman Sean McManus was looking for a replacement for top analyst Phil Simms then; the job went to Romo. CBS called Manning again a couple of years later when it feared that Romo was readying to jump ship for ESPN. Romo ended up staying with CBS for the biggest deal in sports broadcasting history.
Fox Sports had its own courtship with Manning, hiring Cooper, Peyton’s other brother, to do work for them while Peyton was still playing. The idea, according to a former Fox executive, was that it could be a sweetener to lure Manning at some point. When Fox landed the rights to Thursday Night Football in 2018, network president Eric Shanks, an Indiana native who had a Manning Indianapolis Colts jersey displayed on a wall in his office, reached out to Manning. Manning said no, but after the amount of that offer got back to Fox’s incumbent top analyst, Troy Aikman, Shanks hopped on a plane to St. Louis for a dinner with Aikman and his partner, Joe Buck, to iron out a new contract for the former Cowboys quarterback. Aikman signed up for Thursday Night Football and left the dinner with a raise.
ESPN, meanwhile, whiffed twice on Manning. It flew a team of executives to Denver to court him for Monday Night Football first after Jon Gruden returned to coaching in 2018. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro flew back to Denver for a pitch dinner with Manning and the same job offer the next year. Manning politely — it is always politely — declined.
Though ESPN couldn’t get Manning into the booth three years ago, Pitaro and his team did manage to launch a football-themed documentary series, Peyton’s Places. To lure him onto Monday Night Football this season, ESPN and Pitaro recognized that Manning preferred a production deal to a talent deal. Omaha Productions, which Manning founded last year, will co-produce the Monday night broadcasts with ESPN and will launch a new series of Peyton’s Places-inspired shows starring Abby Wambach, David Ortiz and others.
Manning, according to multiple people familiar with his plans, is more interested in following in the footsteps of LeBron James, founder of his own production company, SpringHill, than he is the more the traditional paths followed by Romo and Aikman. In addition to its ESPN deals, Omaha has development deals in place with NBC for a kids competition show and another series with Netflix. It’s a good time to be an A-list celebrity with a media company in Hollywood: Reese Witherspoon recently sold her company, Hello Sunshine, to a private equity firm for hundreds of millions of dollars; Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are reportedly in talks to sell their company.
Viewers will find the Manning broadcast on ESPN2 this season. It will compete directly with ESPN’s main broadcast team of Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese. How many viewers it will pull from that broadcast is an open question, as is whether it will draw any new viewers who wouldn’t already be watching Monday Night Football. (The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis reported ESPN is expecting a 3 to 5% viewership bump.)
The Manning show might have also been well-suited for streaming platform ESPN Plus, serving as a recruiting effort for new subscribers. It’s unclear, though, if ESPN has the rights from the NFL for that arrangement. An ESPN spokesman said the network wanted to maximize the audience for the telecast by putting it on cable but declined to discuss the specifics of its rights deal with the NFL. (Monday’s Manning broadcast was simulcast on ESPN Plus.)
Lee Fitting, the executive producer of the Manning telecast, said viewers can expect the broadcast to highlight the game action with ESPN’s game feed taking up most of the screen. The Manning brothers will appear in smaller boxes alongside it. This week, both brothers were filmed from ESPN’s New York studios, but they will be kept in different rooms to keep the presentation consistent with the rest of the season.
“We don’t want to cheat the viewer,” Fitting said. He added: “The beauty of this is what we as an industry learned through the Covid era. As we know, the TV world turned remote last year.”
Manning offered a preview of what kind of commentator he will be during a recent appearance with Colin Cowherd.
“I’m going to be hard-pressed to say anything negative,” Manning said, adding, “I’m going to be a quarterback defender, a player defender.”
It fit nicely with Omaha’s self-described mission as a company that “champions hard work, encourages the pursuit of passion, and celebrates community.”