Approaching the 2015 season, Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman was thinking of creative ways to highlight and promote youth football on sports television’s longest-running series.
The ESPN vice president of production sought a recurring series that would create wide-ranging pre-game experiences for youngsters who play football in the Monday Night Football home cities. He also wanted a program that would expand upon analyst Jon Gruden’s campaign on the MNF tour in support of youth sports.
After an offseason meeting designed to align ESPN’s interest with the National Football League’s own nationwide youth football initiative, Rothman found the right approach – pulling some of the ideas from the successful and popular ESPN Sunday Night Baseball youth baseball program to create a uniquely MNF initiative.
On Monday, Sept. 21, ESPN launched “Monday Night Lights,” a season-long series where MNF and Monday Night Countdown crews host local high school and Pee Wee football teams at every MNF game. So far, the series has featured local teams from Indianapolis, Green Bay, Seattle, San Diego and Philadelphia.
Tonight at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., a group of players from César Chávez High School will be featured in the programming centered around the Baltimore Ravens-Arizona Cardinals game.
The home team for each MNF game, working with the NFL, invites a youth football program – ranging from 7th-8th graders through high school teams – to the game. Once selected, the group of up to 12 players, coaches and parents, attend the MNF game as special guests.
“The challenge is finding creative ways to just make it interesting for the kids and also to challenge ourselves that we’re not doing the same things each and every week,” Rothman said about the program.
In Green Bay, members of the rival Green Bay West and East High School football teams attended the pre-game ESPN camera meeting where Gruden brought the two youth quarterbacks on stage to call plays much like what the Super Bowl-winning coach does with NFL draft prospects in his popular “QB Camp” series.
Inside the ESPN trucks in San Diego on Oct. 12, players from the Mira Mesa Chargers Pee Wee football team were introduced to football production careers as directors, replay producers, graphics producers, and more. Seattle’s green and white Rainier Ravens players met and interviewed Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll before the game (versus Detroit) on Oct. 5.
As part of “Monday Night Lights,” the youngsters and their pre-game experiences are also featured on the pre-game Countdown program and during the live MNF telecast where commentators Mike Tirico and Gruden mention the players and their team. As needed, Countdown’s on-site producer Tony Florkowski integrates players from the teams into demo segments with host Suzy Kolber and analysts Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and Steve Young.
“It’s rewarding to know we are creating memories and opportunities for these youngsters to think about their future. They’re meeting Mike and Jon, as well as Ray, Steve, Trent and Suzy on Countdown; they are getting a first-hand look at our production trucks, and experiencing the in-stadium pre-game environment,” Rothman said.