Jason Witten had an evening rife with foibles for last night’s Packers-49ers thriller. Whether or not the criticism transcends the Twitter bubble is debatable, but if you think ESPN would redo their Monday Night Football hire, you’re crazy. They think he’ll grow as a broadcaster, and perhaps more importantly his presence has a tacit value with the audience that matters most: The league office and 32 owners who allocate the games, and will be deciding in a couple years whether or not ESPN will join FOX, CBS, and NBC in the Super Bowl cycle. Can Witten, along with Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland, help ESPN accomplish that?
Announcers can enhance or detract your enjoyment of a game, but virtually no one decides whether or not to watch a game because of them. The star players and storylines on the field make all the difference on the margins. Case in point: No one making fun of Jason Witten on Twitter last night stopped watching the game; ratings for Aaron Rodgers’ thrilling comeback were up 38% versus Monday Night Football in Week 6 last season.
Getting more Rodgers, more Cowboys, more Steelers, more Patriots, more Patrick Mahomes is what will move the needle for ESPN. The NFL is crack and there’s a finite supply of the primo stuff.
When he hopped into the ESPN booth, Witten joined a cadre of former Cowboys as NFL broadcasters. Tony Romo (CBS), Troy Aikman (FOX), Moose Johnston (FOX), and Michael Irvin (NFL Network studio) all have prominent roles. Jerry Jones wants it this way, and now he has former players embedded with 80% of the league partners. Only NBC does not have a Cowboy.
When Jerry Jones announced Witten’s hiring at ESPN’s Upfronts this past May, it was a symbolic moment of bridge-building in ESPN’s relationship with the league. New ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has notably been trying to mend the fabric that was fraying under John Skipper. The league office and its owners were unhappy with ESPN’s aggressive reporting on the NFL — as well as the broadcasters it had in place in key positions.
There was a belief the NFL retaliated by giving ESPN lesser quality Monday Night Football matchups, and some of the mutual displeasures between ESPN and the NFL perpetuated themselves. In 2016, Sean McDonough openly stated on MNF that perhaps bad ratings were in part attributable to unwatchable officiating. Last season, McDonough’s broadcast partner Jon Gruden called hits in a Bengals-Steelers game disgusting, disturbing, and sickening.
Witten is unlikely to portray the league in a light that its stakeholders will be unhappy with. Even the “left wing” comment, which he later said was a “mix up”, is something actually more likely to endear him with traditionalist NFL owners than make them queasy.
In addition to wanting better matchups, ESPN would love to get into the Super Bowl cycle in the next round of league rights. Perhaps the NFL, which loves broadcast television, would not want the game exclusively on cable, but ESPN could easily simulcast the game with ABC.
If Witten’s standing with Roger Goodell, Jerry Jones, and the other NFL owners helps them achieve this, are the growing pains not worth it?