When the Browns and Jets play Monday night in New York as part of the 50th season of “Monday Night Football,” the game on ESPN will serve as a nod to history.
The Browns and Jets played in the very first “Monday Night Football” game on Sept. 21, 1970, at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in front of a ridiculously huge crowd of 85,703. The Browns beat the favored Jets 31-21, thanks in part to intercepting flashy quarterback Joe Namath three times. Neither team went on to have especially memorable seasons, but they contributed to a TV revolution.
Before 1970, you could only watch pro football on Sunday afternoons. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle thought his league was ready for prime time. In 1969, he approached the three major networks — CBS, which carried NFL games, NBC, which had carried AFL games, and ABC, better known for college football, the Olympics and “Wide World of Sports.”
All three networks turned him down.
In the pre-cable, pre-streaming, pre-internet world, there was no ESPN, no 24-hour sports highlights, no 24-hour sports radio, no fantasy websites. Networks prized their lucrative evening programming and didn’t see football drawing enough viewers.
Rozelle persevered. He threatened to cook up a syndication deal and eventually came to terms with ABC, the third-ranked network. The initial arrangement was so sketchy, Rozelle later revealed, that the original contract required ABC to guarantee that it would broadcast every game in color.
The reason “Monday Night Football” became a ratings smash, a pop culture phenomenon and a major draw at bars (before they were called "sports bars") was thanks to the confluence of three powerful personalities: Rozelle, innovative ABC sports chief Roone Arledge and bombastic broadcaster Howard Cosell.
Arledge had a blueprint for turning the weekly game into an entertainment property. He created an unconventional three-man booth. He juiced the visuals by adding more cameras around the stadium, more hand-held cameras on the sidelines, more replays, more snazzy graphics.
Cosell initially teamed with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and play-by-play man Keith Jackson. A former lawyer, Cosell had made his reputation on radio, then brought his super-sized ego and brash commentaries to TV, where he primarily covered boxing and the larger-than-life exploits of Muhammad Ali.
Cosell spewed his caustic critiques and $20 words, while the laid-back Meredith, aka “Dandy Don,” countered with down-home phrases and deadpan humor, serving as surrogate eye-roller for viewers as he assessed Howard’s bloviating. Even if the game was dull, Cosell and Meredith rarely were. Frank Gifford, who replaced Jackson after the first season and stayed for decades, would often play straight man. Or referee.
Once a game seemed out of reach for the losing team, Meredith often started warbling a bit of Willie Nelson: “Turn out the lights … the party’s over.”
As the hyper-in-chief of the evening’s game, Cosell had no equal. He also excelled at narrating the halftime highlights, top moments from the previous day’s games (at the time the only extended NFL highlights on TV).
During the actual game, however, Cosell could be a grating presence. Bars would hold drawings to see who got to throw a brick at Cosell's face (on a used TV, not the one everyone was watching). As a testament to his loved-and-loathed relationship with American viewers, in a 1978 TV Guide poll, Cosell was voted both “Most Liked” sportscaster and “Least Liked.”
Hot and sultry
“It is a hot, sultry, almost windless night here at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio,” said Cosell, just after 9 p.m. on Sept. 21, 1970, setting the scene for the first Monday-nighter on ABC.
Browns owner Art Modell, later reviled by fans for bolting to Baltimore, was instrumental in the TV negotiations and had offered to host the first game on ABC. It paid off handsomely as more than 85,000 fans jammed the place.
Producer-director Chet Forte created a new template for the way NFL games were broadcast. Fan reactions and story lines were emphasized. At one point, Meredith couldn’t resist chiming in about the name of a certain Browns wide receiver.
“Isn’t Fair Hooker a great name?” asked Meredith.
“I pass,” Cosell said.
Meredith allegedly added, “Fair Hooker — I haven’t met one yet.”
That quote has lived on in the media ever since. But according to classictvsports.com’s Jeff Haggar, it does not exist on the broadcast's audio. Meredith never added the extra quip (at least not on the air). Perhaps more surprising was the loquacious Cosell’s relative silence.
No matter what Meredith said that night, fans in Northeast Ohio didn’t hear it.
The NFL blacked out the games in the home markets (a rule later amended). WEWS Channel 5, the local ABC affiliate, filled the time with an old Gary Cooper-Susan Hayward western, “Garden of Evil.”
Sponsors that first night on ABC included Goodyear, the Ford Motor Co. and Marlboro — “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country." (Tobacco was the No. 1 advertiser on the airwaves at the time. Less than four months later, all cigarette advertising on TV and radio was banned for good.)
Lennon and Reagan
“Monday Night Football” became a magnet for celebrities, who would drop by the booth to promote their latest projects.
One of the most notable drop-bys occurred in Los Angeles in 1974 when Cosell chatted up former Beatle John Lennon.
Lennon was a charmer as he dissected the differences between soccer, rugby and American football, and took stock of the rowdy crowd (“It makes a rock concert look like a tea party”). In sharp contrast, the other halftime guest that night was Ronald Reagan, then governor of California.
Reagan, the arch conservative, and Lennon, the peace-and-love musician, talked for a bit as they waited to go on the air. “Reagan had his arm around Lennon and he was explaining American football to him,” Gifford wrote years later. “Only on ‘Monday Night Football’ would you get those two guys, who were poles apart, united.”
Six years later, on Dec. 8, 1980, millions of Americans (including me) first heard that Lennon had been killed during a Patriots-Dolphins Monday night game. Cosell shared news of the “unspeakable tragedy” that Lennon had been “shot twice in the back.”
Cosell left after the 1983 season. Meredith, who had stepped away for a few years in the '70s to work for NBC, make movies and sell Lipton Tea, returned to ABC and stayed through 1984.
Al Michaels took over the play-by-play slot in 1986 and enjoyed a long run, first with Gifford and Dan Dierdorf and later with John Madden. (Michaels, at 74, is still a premier sportscaster, now on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”)
Multiple color commentators have blown through the booth over the years, including Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Alex Karras, Boomer Esiason, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Tony Kornheiser, Ron Jaworski and the infamous O.J. Simpson. Monday night, the team of Joe Tessitoreand Booger McFarland will be breaking down Baker Mayfield's passes.
“Monday Night Football” shifted from ABC to ESPN in 2006, its must-see sizzle having long since faded, its Meredith-Cosell chemistry never duplicated.
Now it’s a blip on the overcrowded sports landscape. After two or three games on Sunday afternoon, a marquee game Sunday night on NBC, endless analysis and highlights, plus Thursday night games, football fatigue can set in. If your team isn't involved Monday night, there are a multitude of viewing options.
It remains, however, highly lucrative for the NFL.
ABC paid $8.5 million for the TV rights that first season. ESPN paid a reported $1.9 billion to carry the games this year.
Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.