Other people’s enthusiasms are almost wholly incomprehensible, and a confrontation with such things often gives rise to a sort of dismissive hostility. You may be able to articulate a defense for your noisy allegiance to Tottenham Hotspur F.C.—a seemingly arbitrary devotion that arose despite your having never traveled east of the L.L. Bean store up in Maine—but no matter how well-constructed your argument, those not sharing your showy fascination simply don’t want to hear about it.
The only people who can convincingly feign interest in the misplaced fanaticism of others are moms, and that’s only because they’re used to hearing little kids bang on for hours about Disney princesses and dinosaurs. Yet even the best moms don’t really want to listen to all your inchoate thoughts on Tottenham’s Ivan Perišić, and that includes Ivan Perišić’s very own mom.
All of which is to say that we totally get it if you decide to tap out the moment it becomes evident that this is a column about the ManningCast. Now in its second season on ESPN2, the brainchild of Peyton and Eli functions as a sidecar bolted to the frame of the 250cc chopper that is the primary Monday Night Football telecast. If this is the first you’re hearing of it, congratulations on being freed from the gulag/emerging from your lengthy coma.
Much like your friend who drones on endlessly about that show with all the goblins and wizards, the sports-media world won’t give it a rest with the ManningCast. Dial into Sports Twitter on a Monday night in the fall and much of the chatter cascading down your feed will concern the genial antics of the brothers Manning and their guests. While most of the more familiar names are all but allergic to displays of public enthusiasm, the general tone of the weekly ManningCast conversation is about as dispassionate as a PAW Patrol chatroom the day after the firefighter dog rescues the Tooth Fairy from a burning orphanage.
Full disclosure: We’re one of those Manning yappers.
Structured as a three-hour hang with a couple of guys who understand football on a mitochondrial level, the show dispenses with the clichéd formalities of sports broadcasting in favor of a loose, unpredictable viewing experience. A baggy production that ranges from Xs and Os geekery (the Mannings’ shared insights into the workings of an NFL offense are like mainlining a starting QB’s playbook) to moments of inspired goofiness, the MNF alternative is at its best when the level of play fails to live up to the elder host’s God-like expectations. While the Mannings largely lay off criticizing young quarterbacks, their shared frustration with poor play tends to manifest itself in non-verbal demonstrations of dismay; pay close attention to the upper left-hand side of the screen where Peyton camps out and eventually he’ll react to a flub with all the flustered irritability of a startled goose.
While Peyton is making his I’m-Not-Mad-I’m-Just-Disappointed face, Eli Manning counters with a drowsy, anxious look, one that seems to say, “I’d like to go to sleep right about now, but I’m scared that there are monsters hiding under the bed.” All of which makes for incredibly engaging TV.
If much of the ManningCast chatter seems limited to the rarefied air patrolled by sports-media types, the show’s audience goes well beyond professional blowhards. The Oct. 3 edition of the simulcast averaged 1.63 million viewers, accounting for 13.1% of the night’s overall MNF deliveries. Last season, the ManningCast averaged 1.59 million viewers over its nine-week run, which translates to 11.5% of ESPN’s NFL deliveries.
True, the ManningCast ratings are dwarfed by the standard MNF numbers, but the TV turnout is still considerable when compared to other nationally televised sporting events. Monday night’s simulcast eclipsed the average draw for MLB games that aired this year on Fox/ESPN/TBS/FS1 (927,896), and topped 65 of this season’s coast-to-coast college football telecasts.
The bonus impressions served up by the ManningCast now serve as an ancillary revenue source for ESPN. According to Standard Media Insights estimates, the inaugural season of the Peyton & Eli show generated a modest $507,000 in ad sales, largely because the concept was a last-minute addition to the 2021 lineup. In other words, because the ManningCast was announced after Disney had already sold off the bulk of its in-game upfront units, the ads that ran in the ESPN2 feed merely replicated the spots that aired in the main MNF production. As the second season was sold in the spring upfront market, Disney ad sales president Rita Ferro had ample time to carve out unique opportunities for advertisers specifically looking to target the Mannings’ younger-skewing audience.
ESPN has since grafted the ManningCast concept onto some of its other high-end properties, most notably with KayRod Cast, an alternative to its Sunday Night Baseball coverage. Hosted by YES Network announcer Michael Kay and retired MLBer Alex Rodriguez, the live baseball feed averaged 204,250 viewers. And while those standalone audience figures aren’t terribly impressive, the ratio of simulcast-to-flagship impressions nearly matched that of the ManningCast, as Kay and A-Rod accounted for 10.7% of ESPN’s MLB deliveries. (During the spinoff’s run of four featured Yankees-Red Sox games, KayRod Cast was responsible for 11.7% of ESPN’s overall baseball impressions.)
ESPN’s willingness to export the ManningCast format to other corners of its vast empire further confirms the show is much more than a hobbyhorse for the sports-media tribe, and its recent Saturday Night Live cameo really nailed the point home. The show opened its 48th season on NBC last week with a ManningCast spoof, as host Miles Teller (Peyton) and cast member Andrew Dismukes (Eli) broke down the night’s opening skit with an assist from Jon Hamm. Two nights later, Hamm appeared on the real ManningCast, and a miffed Eli gave the Mad Men alum grief about his role in the SNL send-up.
“You openly mocked us on Saturday Night Live this weekend,” Eli huffed, as Hamm’s ManningCast appearance kicked off. “Is your goal just to come on this show now and make fun of us right to our face?” This was arguably Eli’s second-finest moment of the night, coming as it did on the heels of his analysis of an on-field streaker incident, during which he made the haunting declaration, “If you’re gonna streak, you gotta go full throttle and go nude.”
That the ManningCast actually had the latitude to show the trespasser get flattened by Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner—a wrinkle that would never be allowed during a standard sports broadcast, for fear of encouraging more idiots to take their own very expensive stroll on the turf—speaks volumes about ESPN’s willingness to take risks with the simulcast. It also made for some great TV, even if it wasn’t seen by quite as many people as the SNL sketch, which averaged 4.02 million viewers.