What advancement can learn from Monday Night Football’s dedication to “disruption”

Fifty years ago, Monday Night Football (MNF) debuted on ABC and brought professional football to primetime. In 1970, the popularity of the NFL was a fraction of what it is now, but professional football enthusiasts knew they had a valuable product. Bringing the throws, runs, kicks, and hits to weekday primetime was seen as the first step to boost the league’s audience and that it did. However, it was just the move to primetime that has allowed MNF to maintain a big audience over five decades, it’s their willingness to push the established boundaries of how football is consumed and this year, they took their commitment to disruption to a new level.

First, I need to offer some context. I studied broadcasting, with a big focus on sports journalism, and one thing you learn about the industry is that it is full of traditionalists. In 1940, a man named Lowell Thomas and NBC introduced us to the first nightly television news broadcast and ever since, someone has sat at a desk, in a studio, in front of a camera, reciting the news of the day. Every major sport team’s game can still be found on the local AM/FM radio, and despite the bottom dropping out of the newspaper industry, press boxes remain full of reporters taking notes on the game so they can write an article later that day. Needless to say, sports and tradition have been uniquely intertwined for over a century. I mean, we still use the designated hitter in baseball. “America’s Pastime” might be the most famous example of refusal to innovate. Baseball has more traditionalist than probably any sport in the world. Football on the other hand, has not hesitated to change rules (literally every year) and broadcast style to present its product in a way that meets the entertainment expectations of its audience. The result is a drop in television ratings and youth participation for baseball and the emergence of football as the new American pastime.

Comparably, alumni affairs and development is another industry steeped in tradition with a proud history of advancing the institutions and organizations that have immeasurable impact on the world around us. In this case, tradition is largely associated with the expectation that alumni will pay it forward with their time, talent, and treasure. But the ratings (aka alumni participation) are on a multi-decade decline. Higher-ed, as a whole, has clung more to a baseball mentality, than that of football.

From the get-go, Monday Night Football was different. Not only were the games played under the lights, but the broadcast booth featured not two, but THREE commentators. MNF also increased the number of cameras around the field to provide at-home viewers with perspectives that had yet to see on their television. Soon after its debut, MNF began introducing revolutionary on-screen graphics. Other networks eventually followed suit and football broadcasts evolved to feature on-screen clocks, scoreboards, first-down lines, and on-call former referees to explain plays currently under review. Few griped about the infusion of technology into broadcasts, but that changed when in 2017, a new style of broadcaster emerged.

Tony Romo was a decorated Dallas Cowboys quarterback known for big stats and dating A-list celebrities. What he was NOT known for, was winning the big game. After many years of injuries, he hung up his cleats and made his debut as a color commentator on CBS in the Fall of 2017. Color commentators are typically tasked with explaining the play that just happened, while mixing in the occasional prognostication. Romo, however, approached his broadcasts differently. He didn’t wait for the play to happen, he diagnosed the defense and TOLD US the play the offense was about to run…with stunning accuracy. Viewers loved it. Some veteran broadcasters, like 78 year-old Brent Musburger, despised it. Here’s what Brent had to say, three weeks into the NFL season:

“Tony, get off it. First of all, you’re intruding on your play-by-play man Jim Nantz, who’s just trying to give us the scene. We like to watch the game, okay? Here’s a memo to all you people who think ‘oh, this is great!’ Uh-uh. It’s not going to happen. The more years you spend away from the league, you’re going to know less and less about the personnel that’s out on the field. So I’m blowing a ‘stop the hype’ right now.”

Four years later, Tony Romo and Jim Nantz are still the #1 football broadcast team at CBS. What Musburger either didn’t realize or refused to acknowledge, is that the audience had changed. NFL fans have become, for lack of a better term, “nerdy” about football. The NFL as a whole has recognized this as has most of the teams in the league. That’s why they now offer public (paid) access to the “all 22” game film for every team. Fans LOVE analyzing players and gaining a better understanding for in-game strategy. The average fan has gone from being at the mercy of the “Musburgers” to hosting their own daily podcast that, in some cases, even earns them press credentials with the local team!

This year, Monday Night Football continued their tradition of “disruption” and went one step beyond Tony Romo… they created an alternative broadcast. While the traditional 3-person play-by-play and color commentary continues on ESPN, ESPN2 features former NFL quarterbacks (and brothers) Eli and Peyton Manning, sitting on a couch in their family room diagnosing the game. Not only that, they pipe in other football players, coaches, and celebrities via zoom and turn the MNF broadcast into a casual family room hang-out with football royalty. Three weeks in, the alternate broadcast has received rave reviews by most, though the traditional broadcast is still earning more viewers…for now. Not everyone is enamored, Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina said, “I’m not opposed to fun and nonsense, but that works best in moderation when there’s a game taking place. The game can’t just be in the background.” Yes it can, especially if you’re one of the tens of millions of fans watching who don’t cheer for either team.

So what’s the common thread in this piece about sports that’s not really about sports? Giving up control and listening to your audience. In the case of higher ed/non-profit advancement, the audience is students/alumni/donors. Football decided to lead with a strategy that revolved around what the FANS wanted. Meanwhile, baseball has largely stuck by tradition as they have been far more dedicated to dictating the terms of engagement.

There have never been more living alumni in the history of our planet. At the same time, the percent of alumni supporting their alma mater continues on a troubling trajectory. The lack of malleability in the alumni office, coupled with the audience’s rapidly changing expectations, creates distance between the constituency and the institution. In my opinion, we need to recognize the increase in accessibility offered by digital, and prioritize affinity groups and shared campus experiences over the degree stamped on their diploma.

Tradition is an honorable thing. Brent Musburger’s take on Tony Romo doesn’t change the fact that Musburger is a legendary broadcaster. But his past accolades do not necessarily mean he’s equipped to paint the vision for the next era of sports journalism. Likewise, alumni engagement/fundraising strategies that enjoyed success with the silent generation and baby boomers, are not necessarily the tactics that will move schools and organizations forward.

You don’t have to take my word for it. At BrightCrowd we have a front row seat to what is possible when you meet alumni/students where they’re at and engage them through the communities that are most meaningful. As a Buffalo fan, I’ve never loved the Cowboys or their quarterbacks, but damn if I don’t respect Tony Romo…because HE respects his audience (me).

Alumni and donors deserve the same.

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Hollywood drop-out turned Cornell University fundraiser, now advancing schools/NPs/businesses via BrightCrowd. Politician, comedian, 3x dad.

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Keith Hannon

Keith Hannon

Hollywood drop-out turned Cornell University fundraiser, now advancing schools/NPs/businesses via BrightCrowd. Politician, comedian, 3x dad.

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