ESPN’s Suzy Kolber on Why ‘Monday Night Football’ Is ‘More Than a Game’

“There is an aura about ‘MNF’ … there is that history and legacy to it,” the “Monday Night Countdown” pregame host tells TheWrap

Last Updated: December 18, 2017 @ 12:12 PM

Last week’s “Monday Night Football” game between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins may not have ended how Tom Brady and co. planned (the defending Super Bowl champs lost 27-20), but it was business as usual for ESPN’s Suzy Kolber.

Now the host of the “Monday Night Countdown” pregame show along with her “MNF” halftime and postgame duties, the ESPN veteran pulls an 18-hour plus work day every Monday but still found time to talk to TheWrap about the biggest night in sports.

“It has always been more than a football game, it’s been a night of entertainment,” Kolber told TheWrap. “Even now for players, with all the other stuff going on, there is something special about it being the only game on and knowing that everyone else in the league — including all the other players — is watching you.”

While ESPN’s battle with cord cutters led to high-profile layoffs this year, there’s no stopping the “Monday Night Football” juggernaut. The Patriots-Dolphins game earned an 8.5 overnight rating according to Nielsen, making it the third highest among “MNF” games this season, behind Cowboys-Cardinals (9.3) and Lions-Giants (8.7).

And because ESPN is a fully-focused sports network, as opposed to broadcast networks CBS, Fox and NBC, “we are also able to give it this big stage and pregame show where we try to encompass what happened on Sunday and then also really zero in on the game itself,” said Kolber (below and above left with analysts Steve Young, Randy Moss, Matt Hasselbeck and Charles Woodson).

ESPN Monday Night Countdown Suzy Kolber

TheWrap got to see Kolber in action on the specially-constructed set on the field at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium last Monday, read the full Q&A with her below.

TheWrap: “Monday Night Football” was once the lone weeknight NFL game until “Thursday Night Football” launched (in 2006), has that taken the spotlight off it?
Suzy Kolber: I believe people have said that maybe there is an oversaturation of football — you can watch Thursday, then sometimes when the games are in London you can watch early Sunday morning all the way through Sunday night … before you get to Monday. But because we were the first, there is an aura about “MNF” — I can’t explain why, but as a kid when the music came on … there is that history and legacy to it.

There has been a lot of complaints about Thursday night games, especially from the players, why is that?
You can look at last week’s game [between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons] and the significant amount of injuries — it’s not as popular with players as they don’t have time to prepare and get their bodies right before the game. But on the other hand with a Monday, it means you got an extra day off that week, a little bit more rest and more time to prepare. It’s also what these guys have heard about all their lives and grown up with, while Thursday is a relatively new thing, it doesn’t have that special feeling that a Monday does. It is an honor and a privilege if you are on a Monday night — you’ve been selected.

As a Pennsylvania native and an alum of the University of Miami, do you have certain teams you root for?
I grew up outside of Philadelphia, but I was a huge Dolphins fan before I went to school down there. I always thought the Orange Bowl was the coolest stadium in the world just because of the open air and the palm trees. As my career has progressed and gone on, I root for coaches I like, players I like, or a storyline in a game.

Tom Brady Miami Dolphins

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But it is really hard not to root for Tom Brady and all he has accomplished … all his titles and all he’s done, and now he’s setting new bars playing at 40-years-old. I really admire how he takes care of himself, he is such a huge star in the league so it’s always a lot of fun to have Brady and the Patriots on “MNF.”

Jon Gruden called some of the plays in the recent Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals “MNF” game “disgusting and disturbing,” why was that?
I thought [Steelers QB] Ben Roethlisberger said it best (and he was choosing his words carefully), but through the years we have covered some unbelievable Steelers and Ravens matchups — and they are so physical and hard-hitting, but they are always played with respect. But there’s not been that feeling with the Steelers and the Bengals, it has been nasty and dirty.

Roethlisberger said going into the game he was concerned that someone was going to get hurt. As it turned out in a game where a lot of plays were dirty, [linebacker] Ryan Shazier, unfortunately, did that to himself. That is a lesson for young players that you always have to keep your head up when you hit. It added this element to the game and the Steelers were so gutsy that they were able to pull themselves together and win. It was everything that whole series has been, but unfortunately had that dirty, nasty element to it.

In the end, for all of these guys, it [the NFL] should feel like one big family like “we’re all in this together.” Everybody is risking their health when they go on the field. Guys have to be aware that the game has changed — it’s bigger, faster and the players have the protect each other more than anything else.

From national anthem protests to Trump blasting players, the 2017 NFL season has been dominated with political storylines like never before — has that detracted from the game?
I think everyone gets worn out talking about that stuff — the fans want to enjoy football and we want to be able to come on the air with a smile and celebrate the game that we all love. But it is a reflection of our world and society, so you know what? Things happen, it is not always all smiles and fun, those things come as part of the game.

I never mind reporting on them as that is where more journalism comes into play, and I can rely on a background as a journalist to cover those things. I am more sensitive to the audience as they want to tune in as a getaway but you also have to do a due diligence and can’t ignore these stories that are news.

Who were your idols in sports broadcasting growing up?
I just always enjoyed it as a whole, I remember being a little kid watching the pregame shows and thinking how cool it all was, the whole package. There was something about the sound and the feel of it, it is hard to describe what it was that attracted me to the game. Maybe the guys — how they seemed like gladiators when they came out — it as such a team sport and was the whole package in general rather than one person.

I always had a sports-orientated family, but maybe more than anyone, my grandfather Bernard always had a game on and that was probably a big inspiration for me. Even as a little girl, if there was no one else in the house watching then I was watching by myself. It was something in my soul when I was born, I just loved it.

The entertainment and media industries are both currently being rocked by sexual harassment and gender inequality scandals, how have you found being a woman in a male-oriented profession?
I think ESPN does a really good job of it [gender equality], and I think the next step belongs to women themselves. The next big breakthrough is for it to be commonplace for women to do play-by-play. It’ll be nice when that isn’t a headline, but women need to start on a grassroots level with that. I’d like to encourage women in college to do it … to be aggressive, so by the time they get to the next step in their career, it’s just second nature and it doesn’t matter if it’s are a man or a woman, they’re just really good!

I have been doing this [sports reporting] for so long. Initially, when it was typically at a national championship press conference, there must have been around 250 men and just me. But I never felt out of place or different because sports were just such a part of my life and I was comfortable. And through all the years, there were never any moments of disrespect [from men]. I was always respectful to the players, well prepared and knowledgeable, and that’s how they treated me.

My first on-air job was in West Palm Beach, Florida, as an anchor for sports, and I was clearly not very experienced in terms of being on air but I absolutely knew what I was doing.

ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” next sees the Atlanta Falcons face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.