Peyton Manning is still in the mix to replace Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football, and ESPN should make him a double-digit million dollar per year offer to make it awfully hard for him to tell them no.
While there’s a persistent argument that fans watch games for the players and not announcers, the person in America most apt to move the needle on television viewership is Peyton Manning. In 2015, our site’s Jason Lisk wrote about how he was essentially a one-man NFL franchise as far as advertising and merchandising and general popularity were concerned. Imagine if ESPN successfully landed A-Rod and Peyton Manning within a month or so of each other.
The reasons for the two-year decline in NFL ratings — oversaturation, more eyeballs on Trump and the news, Anthem protests, counter-protesters upset that Colin Kaepernick is not employed, Netflix, illegal streaming, star injuries, bad football — have been widely discussed. One additional factor was the retirement of Peyton Manning, who was always a large draw when he played in primetime, even as his skills were diminishing.
Undeniably, there would be many people who would be queasy about paying Manning $10+ million per year — various estimates put Gruden in the $6-7M range of late — at a time when ESPN has had several rounds of layoffs and is adjusting to attrition in the cable bundle and higher rights fees.
However, the NFL package is a $1.9 billion investment for ESPN and an additional few million dollars there is a rounding error. If Manning were inclined, there are lots of other interesting things ESPN could do with him from a programming perspective. He could put his own spin on Gruden’s QB camps, or do film study segments, or make content that is exclusive to their soon-to-launch OTT platform. There are dozens of ways he could be useful.
There could also be the hope that Manning revitalizes the Monday Night Football platform. ESPN has not gotten great games from the NFL the past few years. There are only so many great matchups to go around, but would Goodell and co. see a sizable investment in Peyton Manning as a commitment to the Shield, and perhaps sweeten the pot? If ESPN got one very-good-to-great game they wouldn’t have gotten before, it would instantly pay for Peyton Manning and then some.
ESPN executive Stephanie Druley told SI’s Richard Deitsch last month that Manning is in the mix, and nothing has changed since then — i.e. he hasn’t told them no. Maybe ESPN makes the best offer it can and Peyton Manning ultimately decides to pursue different opportunities, but they’ve got to make him an offer that is profoundly difficult to refuse.