50 Years Ago: ‘Monday Night Football”s Game-Changing Debut
On Sept. 21, 1970, Monday Night Football premiered on ABC. It would go on to dramatically influence the sports and pop-culture landscapes of America, though no one could have predicted it at the time.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was the man who spearheaded the Monday Night Football concept. The executive envisioned a weekly professional football game played in prime time and broadcast to a nationwide audience. His initial concept was to have the games take place on Friday nights, but that idea was rejected because organizers feared that such scheduling would negatively affect attendance at high-school football games.
Rozelle’s first experiment with a Monday-night football game took place on Sept. 28, 1964, when the Green Bay Packers battled the Detroit Lions. The game was not televised, but a record audience turned out to watch, proving that demand for a weeknight game was strong.
Rozelle would continue to build on his idea in the ensuing years, scheduling one to two Monday night games from 1966-69. These games were broadcast on CBS, and their success convinced the commissioner that regular Monday-night game could be profitable.
Watch 1970's 'Monday Night Football' Intro
In 1970 - following the merger of the NFL and AFL - Rozelle was determined to launch a weekly Monday-night game, complete with its own national broadcast package. NBC and CBS turned down the proposal, unwilling to alter their regular prime-time lineups. “We talked to CBS and they said, ‘And what, move Doris Day?’” the executive later recalled, noting the network’s resistance to give up its Monday-night shows.
Though it took some convincing - and the threat of potentially taking the NFL to Howard Hughes’ independently owned Hughes Sports Network - ABC eventually signed on as the home of Monday Night Football. “We figured that we would lose something like 100 of our stations who would carry the football games independently,” ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge later admitted. “So, it was really fear more than anything else - that is the way I got the network to agree to it.”
The breakthrough agreement would soon be followed by further revolutionary choices. Monday Night Football would feature double the number of cameras as a regular football broadcast up until that point, offering viewers unprecedented engagement with the action. The use of graphics and instant replay - both commonplace in sports today - also began with Monday Night Football.
In addition, MNF added an extra voice to its broadcast, expanding from a traditional two-person booth to three. Its founding team consisted of play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and New York sports commentator Howard Cosell.
Watch the First 'Monday Night Football' Game
More than 33 percent of the American viewing audience tuned in for the Sept. 21, 1970, clash, making Monday Night Football an instant success. The program has continued to be a ratings juggernaut throughout its five-decade run, regularly winning its time slot, even in its weakest of seasons.
Still, its impact goes far beyond the bottom line.
MNF has featured some of the biggest names in the history of sports broadcasting, including Frank Gifford, Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, Joe Nameth, OJ Simpson, Boomer Esiason and John Madden.
Watch John Lennon on 'Monday Night Football' in 1974
The show has also welcomed many famous non-football guests, another unprecedented move in the world of sports. Movie and television celebrities, rock stars and presidential hopefuls have all stopped by the MNF booth, elevating the program beyond the typical football telecast.
Notably, John Lennon was interviewed by Cosell at halftime during a Monday Night Football broadcast in 1974. “It’s an amazing event and sight,” the former Beatle remarked of his first NFL experience. “It makes rock concerts look like tea parties.”
Six years later, Cosell would be the man who told America of Lennon’s murder, breaking into his regular Monday Night Football broadcast to deliver the tragic news.
Watch John Lennon's Death Announcement on 'Monday Night Football'
In 1989, Monday Night Football debuted a new musical intro. Country singer Hank Williams, Jr. delivered a variation of his song “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” reworked as "All My Rowdy Friends Are Here on Monday Night" with lyrics changed weekly to reflect the NFL match-up on tap.
The song - and its iconic “Are you ready for some football?” opening line - would become synonymous with the broadcast for more than two decades.
Controversy surrounded Williams in 2011 following negative comments toward President Barack Obama. As a result, “All My Rowdy Friends” was removed from MNF broadcasts for several years before being brought back in 2017. It was removed again for the 2020 season, with producers claiming the “rowdy” tune would not make sense given the empty stadiums as a result of COVID-19. A revamped version of Little Richard's "Rip It Up" was selected as the new intro song.