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ESPN’s ‘Manning Cast’ is a hit. It could also change how we watch the NFL

By Frank Pallotta, CNN Business

Fire alarms, teasing Tom Brady and flipping the double bird on live television.

These are just some of the viral moments from “Monday Night Football with Peyton & Eli.” Also known as the “Manning Cast” — as in the brothers and former NFL quarterbacks — it feels more like a talk show than an NFL broadcast.

And that’s exactly the point.

The variety-show-like feel — which sees Eli shaking his hips like Shakira to break down a play instead of using just X’s and O’s — could change how fans watch games while helping draw new viewers to the NFL — already the biggest ratings driver on TV.

“This is a way for the league to expand their audience, especially with younger viewers and perhaps people who don’t necessarily want to see just three hours of football,” Jay Rosenstein, a former VP of programming at CBS Sports, told CNN Business. “It’s like watching a game with your best friend.”

“Unpredictable, authentic and fun”

Indeed, the Manning Cast isn’t a play-by-play of the game.

Instead, the famous hosts are doing exactly what most viewers are doing at home: watching Monday Night Football. The brothers chat about the game (which plays alongside them on screen), hold interviews with notable guests such as Tom Brady, Charles Barkley and LeBron James and tease each other mercilessly as siblings often do.

It airs on ESPN 2 simultaneously with the main game broadcast, and it’s been a big hit for the sports network so far. After opening the season with 800,000 viewers, the Manning Cast made a significant jump, averaging about 1.9 million viewers in weeks two and three. After a three-week hiatus, it returned last Monday to 1.6 million viewers, according to ESPN.

The last three episodes of the Manning Cast now top ESPN’s viewership among alternate telecasts.

ESPN and its parent company Disney announced in July a multiyear deal with Ohama Productions, Peyton’s production company. That deal was the genesis of the Manning Cast, and it has the brothers chatting 10 games a season through 2023.

Rosenstein noted that if you get two people as likable as the Mannings, an alternate broadcast doesn’t “dilute the product.”

That’s seemingly what’s happening. Overall viewership ratings for Monday Night Football this season — which include the Manning Cast — are up 17% from 2020 and 15% from 2019, according to ESPN.

Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of programming and original content, told CNN Business he believes the Manning Cast has “deepened our already strong connection with the NFL fan” and has done so by “showing people and personalities in a new, unpredictable, authentic and fun environment.”

“These two guys are unique”

The NFL has experimented with alternate airings before.

Most notably, the league produced a kids telecast on Nickelodeon during last season’s playoffs alongside the featured game on CBS. The kids’ cast included children announcers, a giant, superimposed SpongeBob SquarePants in the end zone and virtual cannons that covered the field in CGI slime.

The Manning Cast doesn’t have slime (…yet), but it does have Peyton and Eli. It’s also why the success of the show may be hard to replicate.

“The real strategic question is how sustainable and replicable this is anywhere else,” Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant, told CNN Business. “I have real doubts other alternate broadcasts can reach these levels. These two guys are very unique.”

Crakes added that even viewers who don’t normally interact with NFL games “likely know who Peyton Manning is.” That type of recognition gives the Manning Cast an edge that may be tough for competitors to match.

But they’ll likely try, given the success of the Manning Cast. That could evolve NFL broadcasting beyond the disembodied voices of analysts and color commentators chatting in a booth.

“Can other networks find the right talent with the right chemistry to make the broadcast promotable and attractive enough to build on the audience it already has?” Rosenstein said. “That’s what networks are going to need to find out.”

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