What Makes the NFL Manningcast Such a Success?

by Deb Seymour

When the notion of having Peyton and Eli Manning host a secondary NFL broadcast Monday nights was conceived, one has to wonder if the creators and producers at ESPN expected it to be as popular as it’s become over the course of this NFL season.

From Pro Football Talk (PFT) at NBCSports.com, November 23, 2021:

“The high-water mark for the Manningcast came three weeks ago, when the Chiefs hosted the Giants. On average, 1.96 million watched that game via the alternate feed.

Last night, when the Giants visited the Buccaneers, the audience fell to 1.575 million. It was a slight increase from last week’s average crowd of 1.554 million for Rams-49ers.

Factoring in the full audience of 12 million on all platforms, the Manningcast accounted for 13.1 percent of the total viewership for the Week 11 game. Given that the Bucs blew out the Giants, it’s possible that more people flipped from the main feed to the secondary one.”

PFT goes on to make the suggestion that continuing the broadcast next season will come down to weighing the cost of producing it — and paying the Mannings — as against the revenue that these ratings represent. Because at the end of the day, you’re only as good as your talent in show business — and make no mistake, sports broadcasting is show business just as much as sitcoms and television dramas.

But whether and how it might continue is a question for another day. For right now, what is it that’s making this secondary broadcast as popular as it is? It’s not drawing the lion’s share of the viewership, but it’s definitely drawing a ratings-significant share. Not only are Peyton and Eli featured, but they have a line-up of guests each week during the broadcast. Commenting on both the game and interacting with the guests has proven to be a bit of a challenge some weeks, and undoubtedly there are those who tune into the primary ESPN broadcast for the standard game calling and analysis that you’d find on any football broadcast. For the Mannings, it’s a lot to juggle. But what the Mannings do bring to the broadcast is their own analysis and discussion of what’s happening in the game; and for many who appreciate the Manningcast (as it’s come to be known), the deeper analysis and alternate game scenarios that Peyton and Eli bring us is worth the loss of the standard play-by-play that you’d get on any other broadcast.

One has to wonder if the original driver for the Manningcast was the Sunday night Statcast AI broadcast for MLB’s ESPN game of the week. Since 1990, ESPN has featured Sunday Night Baseball and similarly to Monday Night Football on ESPN, no other games are scheduled by MLB in that weekly time slot. In August 2020, ESPN introduced a Statcast AI version of the Sunday Night Baseball game of the week, featured on the secondary ESPN2 channel — again, similarly to the Manningcast featured for football on ESPN2. Percentage-wise, however, it seems the Statcast AI MLB broadcasts don’t draw the numbers that the Manningcast has, although it’s close — as exemplified by the broadcasts from the 2021 American League Wild Card game. The game aired on ESPN and ESPN2 and though it set a few audience records for a Wild Card game, the ESPN telecast averaged 7.11 million viewers, while the alternative ESPN2 Statcast averaged 573,000 viewers. That’s roughly an 11 percent share of the viewership of the game.

Part of what seems to drive the viewership of the Manningcast, again similarly to the baseball Statcast, is audience popularity — or lack thereof — of the main ESPN broadcast of the game. When the personalities broadcasting either football or baseball are not to the liking of the audience, that audience is going to seek alternatives. And in both the case of Sunday Night Baseball and Monday Night Football, ESPN has had a revolving door of broadcasters covering the games over the years — many of them drawing either the ire of the fan base or just plain complaints. But the secret ingredient that the Mannings bring to their coverage isn’t just that they represent an alternative to the main ESPN broadcast; it’s that they bring a mix of personality, experience, guest lineup, and yes, the fact that they’re brothers — and that sibling dynamic is constantly in play.

Does Peyton talk over Eli at times? He does, although it’s becoming less frequent. It’s clear who’s the older brother of the two. But Eli brings a certain special ingredient of humor to the broadcast that perhaps only younger brothers can bring; and the thing about younger siblings is they don’t need to have the stage all the time — they can just interject at the right moment and the work is done. Both have years of experience as NFL quarterbacks and have won Superbowls; and who has the better overall stats from their player days doesn’t really matter. The football IQ that the Mannings bring to their game analysis is topnotch, both having come from a football family that was fathered by Archie Manning, a legend in his own right. One aspect of the Manningcast that’s surfaced for me is that Eli is the better interviewer, to the extent that the broadcast is a form of talk show with four guests a night. He seems to be evolving a bit more into the host/interviewer role — while Peyton provides a bit more game analysis. Peyton is more excitable, while Eli is droll and dry. The dynamic between the two just works, somehow. But if you’re looking for a traditional play-by-play with color, this alternative broadcast is simply not for you.

A note on the guests that the Manningcast is produced to include: they’re all well known personalities and most have some connection to football, whether they’re current players, former players, coaches, broadcasters, or they’ve played more of a front office or oversight role. Some have made career changes since their football days; some only played football as an avocation. There have been those who’ve held political office and those who’ve made careers as comedians. For the most part, however, they’ve brought color, smarts, insight, or just sidekick humor to the broadcast. And the Manning brothers seem to be more intentionally, with each successive week, establishing their broadcast balancing act as something different from the traditional play calling show, as they seem to be getting more comfortable with only commenting on what’s happening in the game itself from time to time.

What I typically do is flip between the Manningcast and the ESPN traditional broadcast, depending on how much play-by-play I actually want to hear for the particular game. My suspicion is that many other viewers do likewise, especially if the Mannings have a guest in whom they have a specific interest. I’m not huge on talk shows in general, but this one is entertaining enough to keep my interest most of the time. Besides, who can pretend they don’t enjoy the give and take between the two brothers, who are always at two different locations, throughout the game? Eli’s shown us his dance moves and asked his mom for meatloaf during the game. Peyton’s almost jumped out of his seat when he thinks the wrong play’s been called in a particular game. You don’t get to see that kind of spontaneity in every broadcast, and at times it’s been worth its weight in gold. I have to hope that ESPN decides to try to keep the broadcast going next season. And I’m guessing that most of you do, as well.

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