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Surely, Booth Is Now the Place to Really Hit Paydirt

August 26, 2000|MIKE PENNER

It is August in the NFL, time for the traditional barometer reading on the state of the national pastime, and what are America's football fans talking about this year?

Oh, same things they always do.

The big transaction of the off-season.

Can you really believe ABC is sticking Dennis Miller in the Monday Night booth?

New quarterbacks replacing old quarterbacks.

Dan Fouts has to be an improvement over Boomer Esiason, don't you think?

Youth movements around the league.

Did you see where Melissa Stark has 20 years on Lesley Visser?

Aging veterans trying to hang on for one more season.

Is this really it for Pat Summerall?

Suspect refereeing.

Matt Millen wasn't any better than any of those full-time near-sighted whistle blowers.

Individuals pursuing longtime league records.

Now entering his 15th season with "NFL PrimeTime," Chris Berman will tie Brent Musburger for most consecutive years as an NFL studio host.

Team chemistry.

So when Miller goes off on a rant, who's in charge of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Fouts or Al Michaels?

Maybe it's because escalating ticket prices are forcing more fans to consume their pro football on television. Maybe it's because specialization and expansion and parity have made the product on the field less intriguing than the product in the booth. Maybe it's because John Madden has never been charged with a felony. Maybe it's because "Monday Night Football" made a more serious attempt this off-season to improve its team than the Chargers and the 49ers did.

Pick a reason, any reason, but if you're listening closely enough, you're hearing a different noise around the NFL this season.

In terms of popularity, influence and impact, the talent behind the mike is gaining on the talent beneath the shoulder pads.

Name another NFL-related off-season story that logged as much time on sports talk radio than ABC's decision to blow out Esiason, the speculation/threat of Rush Limbaugh moving in alongside Michaels ("Are you ready for some bellicose prime-time right-wing sloganeering?!") and the introduction of HBO guerrilla comic Miller and the Tigris and the Euphrates and the sword of Damocles to the Coors-swilling masses.

(Miller even wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which is more than any Seattle Seahawk has done lately.)

Ask any casual fan why he or she tuned into last Sunday's meaningless exhibition game in New England and they'll tell you it was because Fox analyst Millen was pulling a George Plimpton--"Paper Zebra?"--and spending a few minutes as an NFL referee with a camera strapped to his head.

(It certainly wasn't because of the Patriots.)

Booth versus field.

Studio versus huddle.

To put it another way: Which Pittsburgh Steeler combination strikes you as most interesting today--Terry Bradshaw-Lynn Swann . . . or Kordell Stewart-Troy Edwards?

Berman and Tom Jackson, ESPN's NFL studio hosts, are better known around the league than any Cincinnati Bengal.

"I know that that [Sunday] morning show is on in almost every locker room in the NFL," Jackson says. "We hear from coaches and players that they never miss that show. They're either watching it when it's on live or they're watching the rerun of it--they're not going to miss that show. . . . Guys in this league watch it to see what they can pick up [on the opposition]."

Berman says former Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula once told him that he used ESPN's NFL highlights show "as a coaching tool. I said, 'Get out of here.' And he said, 'No. When I play a team out of my conference, like the Giants or somebody that I haven't played for three years, I start paying attention to those highlights about six weeks before we play them.' "

The cult of personality--or lack thereof--in the "Monday Night Football" booth last season was strong enough to lure onetime "MNF" executive producer Don Ohlmeyer out of retirement this year. Ohlmeyer said he wasn't enjoying himself watching on Monday nights anymore. To him, the broadcasting team of Michaels and Esiason wasn't having much fun, either. The games themselves were not enough, Ohlmeyer felt. As ratings slumped, the ghosts of Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith hung over each telecast.

Where was the old spark, the old energy, the old unpredictability?

Finally, when ABC called and asked if he would come back and clean up Dodge, Ohlmeyer felt obligated to accept.

"Football is a game. It's not played in St. Patrick's Cathedral," Ohlmeyer says. "When you're sitting at home, whether you're sitting by yourself or with a bunch of friends, you want to enjoy yourself. And what's terrific is if you have the feeling about the people [calling] the game that, hey, these are a bunch of people I'd like to come over to my house, have a beer with me, watch the game and tell me what's going on.

"To a degree, that's what we're trying to provide."

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