This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On Sept. 9, as the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to take on the Washington Redskins in the first Monday Night Football game of the NFL season, ESPN viewers won’t be asked whether they are ready for some football. Instead, they’ll be treated to a montage of Darth Vader, Ronald Reagan and the daredevil who jumped from outer space in 2012.
The creator of the new MNF opening segment is Peter Berg, the filmmaker and football fanatic best known for the Friday Night Lights film and TV series. Berg won the job after pitching the network on the idea of packing 44 years of culture and football history into a 90-second curtain-raiser for the weekly game.
“Whether it be presidents being elected, great films, 9/11, Katrina — these are moments that we all remember culturally and somehow dealt with on Monday Night Football,” Berg tells THR.
The new opening, which has been in the works for nine months, references Pac-Man, Madonna and Titanic, among other major cultural forces. ESPN execs have been looking for a permanent opening since dropping Hank Williams Jr.‘s classic “Are You Ready for Some Football” intro in 2011 after the singer analogized President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. ESPN executive producer Jed Drake says at the end of last season, the network quietly put out requests for proposals to creative firms before Berg offered the timeline concept.
Berg was hired and worked with Los Angeles-based design firm Ignition Creative on the opening, which moves from the first MNF game between the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns on September 21, 1970 to wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s catch for the Detroit Lions that set the NFL single-season receiving record in December of 2012. Along the way, MNF’s familiar “Heavy Action” theme music plays, and classic game moments are dispersed with cultural ones. Of course, making the cut was John Lennon‘s appearance on MNF in 1974 where he tells Howard Cosell about the experience, “It makes rock concerts look like tea parties.”
The plan is to regularly tweak the opening, adding and subtracting historical moments. “We hope this will spark debate about which cultural touchstones should be in it,” says Drake.
One aspect of the montage that could generate chatter is the Disney quotient. ESPN’s parent company is represented by Star Wars and Indiana Jones (Lucasfilm), Toy Story (Pixar) and Iron Man (Marvel). Are the inclusions a sly promotional tactic, or was it just easier to license rights from a sister company? Berg says it helped “for sure” to have the Disney archive at his disposal, adding that not all studios were enthusiastic about helping promote football on a Disney network. He notes, “There was some stuff from The Matrix we had trouble clearing.”
For Berg, the chance to work on the MNF opening brought back fond memories of watching the games with his father during his childhood. “We weren’t allowed to watch television,” he says about school nights. “But we were allowed to watch Monday Night Football. So it always had this special, secret holiday association for me.”