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“You Didn’t Tune in to a Football Game to Feel Like S---”: Why ESPN Chose Joe Tessitore to Rebuild Its Relationship With the NFL

‘Monday Night Football’ needed a shot in the arm. Who better to provide it than the Frank Sinatra of the broadcast booth?

A treated photo of ESPN broadcaster Joe Tessitore ESPN/Ringer illustration

Joe Tessitore, the announcer ESPN picked to reboot Monday Night Football, has a preferred way of getting to know people. He wants to bring them into his vibe. “I want you to sit with me,” he says. “I want you to drink with me. I want you to eat cheese and prosciutto and salumi. It’s because I always want to be my authentic self.”

One afternoon last month, it was under these auspices that Tessitore, who is 47, led me from the front door of his Connecticut house to a kitchen island. His wife, Rebecca, had laid out a feast: black truffle moliterno cheese and three kinds of salami and a small mountain of prosciutto di parma. Tessitore filled two big glasses with tequila and ice. He sat across from me. We began to vibe.

In my zoological studies of play-by-play announcers, I’ve found many of them hold their TV persona at some remove. One of the arresting things about Tessitore, as the former ESPN boxing writer Brian Campbell points out, is that he utterly rejects this idea. Tessitore speaks in a single voice. His TV self and his real self have achieved oneness.

“Performance?” Tessitore says of his game calls. “No. Uh-uh. No. It’s my identity.”

“The way I describe a gouda or a moliterno may be the way I describe a critical third down,” he says, picking at the platter in front of us, “or Keanu Neal coming over and wrecking a tight end right at the goal line.”

When you understand this about Tessitore, his manners—the way he calls you “man” and “dude” and “bro”; the way he plies you with food and drink until almost midnight—begin to make sense. It’s as though you were being drawn inside a TV screen. Stephanie Druley, one of the ESPN executives who oversees Monday Night Football, has programmed her phone so that when Tessitore calls, she sees a picture of Sesame Street’s game-show host, Guy Smiley.

New vibees, however, may initially find Tessitore disarming. “It’s almost like it’s over-the-top,” says Jason Witten, the former Dallas Cowboys tight end who sat at the kitchen island before being hired as Tessitore’s Monday Night partner. “But it’s so pure.”

Of Witten, Tessitore says fondly: “I find him to be a total dude.”

“Dude” is just about the ultimate Tessitore compliment. It means a guy who can take a heavy-handed pour of tequila and cut into a big porterhouse and who doesn’t mind—as Tess and Witten did during one vibe this summer—staging a boxing match inside a deserted restaurant.

Mark Kriegel, who calls boxing with Tessitore, says: “There’s something gloriously retro about Joe.” Just about everyone who has tried to revive Monday Night Football has called for a return to the ’70s prime of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, and Don Meredith. Tessitore, in both manner and practice, is proposing something bigger. He wants to reclaim a lost, ’70s ideal of being. When you could flip on the game and pour yourself a drink and talk about football in an untortured way.

“Every single play, somebody’s risking their life,” he says. “There’s urgency to it. I like that.”

ESPN has turned to Tessitore in a moment of crisis. This spring, SportsBusiness Journal’s John Ourand reported that the network’s relationship with the NFL had reached its nadir. On one hand, ESPN is the league’s business partner, paying $1.9 billion per year for Monday Night and associated rights. On the other, ESPN is the league’s most relentless muckraker. It’s like if The New York Times were throwing a fundraiser for Donald Trump and printing the latest Maggie Haberman scoop on the same day.

If you watch the various parts of ESPN at work, you see the NFL’s aura being scratched and then re-polished. Vivid reporting from Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. has advanced the idea that the league is haunted by snarling owners and Donald Trump’s tweets. Yet in the words of Booger McFarland, who along with Lisa Salters will make up the rest of the new announce team, ESPN wants to make “Monday Night Football fun again.”

Executive Burke Magnus has called for a “reset” in ESPN-NFL relations. Some of this will involve sultry C-suite tangos. But Tessitore’s voice will be the reset’s most public expression. Tessitore relishes the job. “I want to crush this thing and kick ass,” he says of Monday Night.

Tessitore’s single voice wasn’t arrived at easily. But it is nearly flawless. Over our two-day vibe, I only once saw Tessitore even mildly annoyed. Tessitore had gone to fetch the tequila bottle. I kidded him that he was refilling my glass more aggressively than his own. “Oh, no, don’t worry about that,” he said, filling his glass to the brim. To Joe Tessitore’s authentic self!

Joe Tessitore
ESPN

Tessitore is different from other football broadcasters. To explain how, he has come up with a theory. Tessitore divides play-by-play announcers into two groups. One group he calls the Classically-Trained Violinists. This is Jim Nantz, Al Michaels, and Joe Buck. Classically-Trained Violinists are precise and letter-perfect and call something like a flawless game.

The second group of announcers Tessitore calls the Jazz Riffers. This is Tessitore, Brent Musburger, and Gus Johnson. Jazz Riffers want to get the down and distance right, of course. But they also want to push past the smooth-talking politeness of sports TV and connect with the audience on a primal level.

When Tessitore stares into a camera, he imagines he’s headlining a lounge in Vegas. “You should be acting like you’re onstage,” Tessitore says, adding, “You’re one with it, man. You’re riffing. When you’re at your best live on TV, it should feel like you’re going into a jazz session.”

Other than Musburger, Jazz Riffers are not usually granted sports TV’s prime slots. Monday Night’s past two play-by-play announcers, Mike Tirico and Sean McDonough, were tapped for greatness in their 20s. Tessitore came along more slowly. After graduating from Boston College in 1993, he tried out for the original, determinedly “hip” version of ESPN2. ESPN executives didn’t hire him but pulled off the broadcasting version of a “sign and stash.” When Hartford’s CBS affiliate needed a sports guy, ESPN suggested Tessitore would be perfect. Bristol was able to watch its man on local TV before calling him up in 2002.

Tessitore always dreamed of calling big games, of holding a national audience in his hand. “A sporting event is a Picasso or a LeRoy Neiman—vibrant splashes of color!” he says as he sips his tequila. He walks to his big-screen TV and traces his fingers around the edges. “Your job as a play-by-play man is to frame it properly.”

Tessitore, his former partner Todd Blackledge says, is one of the most rigorous preparers in the business. Tessitore wakes up at 5:45 every morning. He prays. Then he edifies himself with a philosophical tract by René Descartes or a piece of longform journalism. “Being a great broadcaster is just being a great writer who just happens to speak what he’s writing in his head,” he says. Tessitore watches little TV news and thinks politics is “the biggest con job ever put forth on America.”

When Tessitore finds himself creatively stifled—when Real Tess is not finding his full expression on the screen—he consults a gallery of influential figures. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin for riffing. Tony Bennett and the journalist Gay Talese (a Tessitore pal) for craftsmanship.

Eight years ago, when Tessitore felt his career was stagnating, he paid a visit to Anthony Bourdain’s New York production company. Tessitore felt Bourdain was a role model. Here was a guy extracting his authentic self and putting it on TV. Watching Bourdain match his words to the pictures, Tessitore said, “was the moment that all clicked.”

Beginning with Boise State–Nevada in 2010, Tessitore began to turn college football games into white-knuckle affairs seemingly through his sheer, authentic enjoyment—a phenomenon that was called the “Tess Effect.” I reminded Tessitore of the 2016 Texas–Notre Dame game. As the Longhorns’ backup quarterback stretched the ball into the end zone in double overtime, Tessitore crowed, “For the w-i-i-i-n! Texas is back, folks!”

Tessitore never actually called the touchdown. He didn’t need to. It’s as though he was dignifying college football’s wackiness by not doing it.

“That’s a total jazz riff, bro,” Tessitore says.

In June, Tessitore was calling a boxing match in Oklahoma City when something amazing happened in the fourth round. The long-shot underdog, Lenny Zappavigna, started whaling on the favorite, Alex Saucedo. Blood splashed on Tessitore’s tan Burberry suit. As the clock wound down, Tessitore toggled between calling the action and exclaiming, “Can you believe this fight?! … This is outrageous!”

Druley admitted that Tessitore’s style isn’t for everyone. But as he riffed, Tessitore noticed something unusual happening. He was bulldozing the wall that usually exists between the announcer and the viewer. “The fan started rooting for me,” Tessitore says. That’s something even the best Classically-Trained Violinist can rarely say.

Tessitore and I had polished off our second glass of tequila. We’d eaten an unhealthy amount of cheese and salumi. At that moment, Tessitore announced that our vibe was moving. We were going to dinner.

“Enzo,” Tessitore says into his car phone, “buona sera? Come stai? Put in an order of calamari napoletana, per favore?”

We park in the back of a North Haven restaurant owned by Tessitore’s brother-in-law, Dalton Velez. Tessitore makes what he called the “Goodfellas entrance,” walking through the kitchen and greeting the cooks and busboys by name. (“What’s up, Jose? How’s it going, brother?”) When we get to our table, we find a bowl of steaming calamari waiting for us.

Tessitore refuses the menu. He orders four courses from memory. He would have stopped if I’d cried uncle. But I felt that by eating an extra prosciutto-wrapped shrimp and chugging another glass of chianti (we opened two bottles), Tessitore and my vibe was attaining a new level. “We’ve all been given the full Joe Tess,” says Druley. “It’s an eight-hour meal, usually.”

Trekking through the hinterlands of sports TV meant that Tessitore has constantly mentored ex-athletes who are just starting in the business. “He likes playing the father,” says Kriegel, adding, “I never worked with a guy who was so intent on—pardon this insidious phrase—coaching me up.”

“You come into my world?” Tessitore says. “You better go about this shit the way you went about that shit”—a.k.a., your playing career. “Because I’m now your offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and head coach rolled into one. And I will call your ass out.”

Timothy Bradley Jr., the ex-boxer, started calling matches with Tessitore last summer. “On one of the standups we did, I was getting all animated,” Bradley tells me. “He pulled me to the side and said, ‘Can you stop this crap? Just speak to me normal.’ I’m like, ‘OK, I got it, no problem.’ I go out and kill the segment. Then he’s pounding me and saying, ‘Man, I don’t know why you do this to me!’”

Chuckling, Bradley adds: “When I listen to him, I’m great. When I go off on my own, I do terribly. So I just listen to him, man. Because I don’t want to get yelled at.”

ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth has seen six different teams in the past 13 years (turnover being a Monday Night tradition since the show’s founding). There were times last season when Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden seemed like they could barely stand each other (another Monday Night tradition). After Gruden left to coach the Raiders and McDonough returned to college football, ESPN executives let Tessitore and coordinating producer Jay Rothman recommend new color analysts, with an emphasis on “fit.”

One evening in April, Witten, who was still an active tight end with the Cowboys, went to Tessitore’s house for a long dinner. He was surprised that the voice Tessitore used on TV was the same one he used to talk to his wife. But something about Tessitore’s pureness appealed to Witten. “I realized we weren’t just going to work together,” Witten says. “We were going to be brothers.” Witten quit the Cowboys a few weeks later.

This summer, after Witten and McFarland had been hired and the crew began their rehearsals, Rothman asked Witten to execute a “rollout” to commercial. Meaning, give the audience a final, salient point as the director counts down, “9, 8, 7 …” When Rothman glanced at the booth camera, he saw Witten talking. Tessitore was punching the air next to him. Message from Coach Tess: Fire off that take like an uppercut, Witten! Don’t shoeshine me or I’ll call your ass out! Tessitore told me, “I think broadcasting is a physical act.”

When Tessitore talks about his desired on-air vibe, he is more likely to cite Inside the NBA than he is Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. “My competition is relevant TV no matter what the matchup or score is,” he says. Though McFarland will be positioned on a sideline cart that’s several feet off the ground—a better place for the former nose tackle to see the field, producers say—he will have a monitor in front of him so he can watch Tessitore and Witten at all times. “It’s like FaceTime, if you will,” Rothman says.

Monday Night Football, which draws more than 10 million viewers a week, saw its viewership hit a new low last season. As the ESPN-NFL relationship sagged, the matchups on the schedule were lousy. Tessitore refuses to see Monday Night as a distressed asset. “When I grew up, Monday Night Football was the biggest shit on TV because it was the end of the NFL weekend,” Tessitore tells me over dinner. “It was stand-alone. I demand that it returns to that prominence.”

You want it to feel special, I suggest.

“And you know how it can feel special?” he says. “Simply by hearing it in your voice.”

Tessitore points to the remains of the shrimp I’ve just devoured. “Dude,” he says, “how much did you enjoy that?”

Tessitore on set
ESPN

The next day, as we’re driving to New Haven for coffee, Tessitore talks about his childhood in Schenectady, in upstate New York. Carefully talks about it. For this is the one place Tessitore’s voice seems pulled in two different directions.

Tessitore’s childhood was marked by a “crazy dichotomy,” he says. He grew up under the sway of two grandfathers. They were both named Joe. But they couldn’t have been more different.

Joe Miranda, Tessitore’s mother’s father, was a first-generation immigrant. Grandpa Miranda was a corner barber in Schenectady’s Italian American neighborhood of Goose Hill. He spoke fluent Italian and almost no English. Grandpa Miranda lived in a two-family house; he and his wife lived downstairs and Joe’s uncle and cousins lived upstairs.

Tessitore spent nearly every afternoon in Goose Hill. “You say Joe Buck to me,” he says. “I acknowledge the guy’s great. I didn’t have Joe Buck’s avenue, brother! … I was in Schenectady, New York, having a heel of bread and having some prosciutto.”

Schenectady in the 1970s was ruled by the accused mobster Paul “Legs” DiCocco. Gambling was everywhere. Though he’s still feeling out ESPN’s appetite for mentioning the spread on-air, Tessitore thinks he can translate gambling to America. “Gambling was the bedrock of every day of our lives growing up in Schenectady,” he says. “From runnin’ numbers to horse racing to sports betting to the poker games in the back room of the luncheonette.”

Did you ever run numbers as a kid? I ask Tessitore.

He pauses for a long time. “I can’t talk about that,” he says.

Asked why, Tessitore launches into a speech about how pop culture tends to caricature the kind of Italian Americans he grew up around as thugs or buffoons. He has a special contempt for “sellout pieces of shit like Robert De Niro.”

Eventually, Tessitore says: “You ask me, Were you surrounded by gambling? Do you know people who ran numbers? Did you do anything? I wasn’t a criminal. But, yeah, I know everything. I was around it. It’s not something I look at and say, ‘These are bad people.’” DiCocco and Co. were inextricably linked to his childhood and the city. “That family,” Tessitore says, “was family.”

Tessitore’s other grandfather, who was named Joe Tessitore, presented him with a different model of inspiration. Grandpa Tessitore’s family had been in America only one generation longer than Joe Miranda’s. But Grandpa Tessitore was a walking testament to the power of assimilation. Grandpa Tessitore had a college degree. An insurance salesman and bowling alley owner, he became a jet-setting businessman who befriended artists like LeRoy Neiman. Neiman’s work hangs in his grandson’s house.

Thanks to his grandfather, Tessitore the Younger was the only one of his cousins to live in a house in the suburbs. He went to private school and took an airplane to vacation. He came to know the glittering world outside of the city. “I knew that Schenectady was going to be a great place to come from,” Tessitore says.

When Tessitore went to the racetrack at Saratoga, he could see the twin polarities of his childhood. One day, he’d spend with Grandpa Miranda and the other railbirds. The next day, he’d sit with Grandpa Tessitore on the third floor of the clubhouse—next to Jack Klugman and Steve and Eydie and a smattering of Whitneys and Vanderbilts.

“He was a fiercely proud Italian,” Tessitore says of his paternal grandfather. “But he was a fiercely proud Italian who put up his middle finger at the establishment. Like, Fuck you! I started five businesses, and now look what table I’m sitting at? I’m here, too.”

Tessitore has the same insurgent instincts, though he’s more likely to raise a squash racket than a middle finger. He belongs to the New Haven Lawn Club. “I do break his balls somewhat regularly about being a squash enthusiast,” Kriegel says. Tessitore has sent two kids to Choate, the elite Connecticut boarding school. (His son John is now a kicker at Boston College; his daughter Nicolina is a nationally-ranked squash player.) Tessitore bought the land his house sits on from an old-line New England family and every year hires a Yale football player to serve as his intern.

The old neighborhood in Schenectady is Tessitore’s badge of authenticity, his fuel. “When I watch Rocky, it’s like I want to put on a gray sweatsuit and run through South Philly,” he says.

But Tessitore also loves the trappings of the good life: Gucci shoes and Ferragamo belts and backyard fire pits (he has two). He loves living near Yale. Loves the energy. Loves the standards. When he sees a Yalie cramming for a final, it makes him want to crush a broadcast.

As we drive around New Haven, Tessitore speaks about Yale—which neither he nor anyone in his family attended—as fondly as if it were the corner pizzeria back home. “That’s admissions …” he says. “That’s the famous Peabody Museum. … Skull and Bones … The Yale Rep is phenomenal.”

This year, the relationship between the NFL and ESPN got so frayed that the league seemed like it wanted to punish its own business partner. The NFL let Fox offer a competing draft telecast. The league even toyed with giving ESPN’s single playoff game to Fox before leaving it intact.

It’s important to describe ESPN and the NFL’s “problem” correctly. If ESPN is irritating Roger Goodell, it means the network’s journalists are doing what they’re supposed to do with brutal efficiency. And as one ESPN journalist explains, the NFL doesn’t just get agitated when the network reports that Texans owner Bob McNair compared protesting players to “inmates.” The league gets agitated when such a scoop gets chewed over on First Take and PTI, creating a negative wall of sound. “It’s how the narrative becomes infested in our opinion shows,” the source says.

For its part, the NFL—which successfully intervened with ESPN over its involvement in a concussion documentary and the dramatic series Playmakersseems bewildered that ESPN is playing two seemingly contradictory roles. One NFL source describes the league’s thinking like this: “Look, you guys are knee-deep in the NFL business. You guys should be trying to help us rather than hurt us. But you seem to be going out of your way to hurt us.”

No one quite knows what will happen to ESPN’s journalism. Adrian Wojnarowski, who worked for new president Jimmy Pitaro at Yahoo!, has vouched for Pitaro’s journalistic credentials. But Pitaro remains a cipher to many employees. (After one ESPN host greeted a man he thought was Pitaro, he was told he had just met Jonathan Givony, the NBA draft analyst.) In the meantime, ESPN’s journalists are putting up a brave face. “We’ve been in business with the NFL for 30-some years and have reported on the NFL for 30-some years,” Andy Tennant, the executive producer of Outside the Lines and E:60, told me this summer. “If that is all going to change, no one has had that conversation with me yet.”

From the partnership side, ESPN has moved to aggressively tweak Monday Night Football. One model has been the network’s college football coverage. This offseason, ESPN moved Monday Night under the purview of executive Lee Fitting, the creative force behind College GameDay. “I’ve been instructed from above to bring some of the GameDay- and college football–type atmosphere to Monday Night Football,” Fitting tells me. “I want to make it more fun.”

In a meeting I sat in on, Fitting offered ideas on everything from Monday Night’s graphics to the number of times Hank Williams Jr. should appear in the opening. Fitting wants the telecast to have more of a sense of place, with more shots of stadium statuary and actual fans. “Ninety-eight percent of our viewers will never go to Lambeau Field,” Fitting says. “Let’s take them there.”

The old announcing team of McDonough and Gruden acquired a reputation as referee-bashers. “We’re guilty the last two years of piling on, between Sean and Jon,” says Rothman, adding, “It was just kind of a downer.” ESPN executives admire Tessitore’s diplomacy with rights-holders. Last December, when Tessitore announced an over-officiated Pac-12 title game, he gently called it “choppy.”

But Tessitore’s biggest asset in the ESPN-NFL reset is his eagerness to vibe with everybody. “My whole thing is, if I work in a sport category, you’re going to know I’m a partner,” Tessitore says. “That I’m not just a guy who comes and does your games.”

In March, before he’d been publicly named the Monday Night host, Tessitore pressed the flesh at the Monday reception at the NFL owners’ meetings. When ESPN signed a deal to air Top Rank boxing matches (a deal that was recently extended to 2025), Tessitore became a frequent dining companion of 86-year-old promoter Bob Arum. “I really enjoy the hell out of the time I spend with him,” Arum says, recounting the now-familiar rites of a Tessitore dinner.

Earlier this year, Bob Costas walked away from NBC’s Super Bowl telecast because of his “ambivalent feelings” about football. Tessitore has no such ambivalence. “I think we have to be honest with ourselves,” he says of play-by-play announcers. “There’s still this lingering attitude of, where are we in terms of being journalists?”

“I understand there are elements of journalism that come with my job,” he continues. “But we’re far more capitalists than we are journalists.” Joe Tessitore speaks with a single voice.

To tune his singular, riffing, sufficiently capitalist voice, Tessitore occasionally uses some mood music. Back in his car, Tessitore cues up the album he likes to listen to when he’s driving to a game: The Main Event, Frank Sinatra’s 1974 special from Madison Square Garden.

“Ah, right there,” Tessitore says, when Sinatra switched up the lyrics in “The Lady Is a Tramp.” But what really gets Tessitore pumped up is the introduction Howard Cosell gave Sinatra as he walked toward the stage. A big-voiced, just-this-side-of-corny intro that sounds a little like Tessitore’s own game calls.

“That’s a ring entrance, bro,” Tessitore says. “I’m ready to punch somebody right in the face and knock somebody out—knock out a broadcast, man.”

When Tessitore is in the booth and kickoff is a few minutes away, he asks ESPN’s audio technicians to put on another song. It’s “Feels So Good,” Chuck Mangione’s groovy instrumental from 1977.

An odd choice, Tessitore admits. But it’s perfect for the Tessitore voice, in which any inklings of fear and desire and wayward nostalgia and ESPN agita get distilled into a carefree vibe.

Tessitore puts on the song. “This is where I want to live, right here,” he says as the sound of Mangione’s flugelhorn fills the car. “That’s the beat in my head when I’m broadcasting. That’s it. ... It’s the late ’70s. You can have a cocktail. Nobody’s offending anybody. Just chill, enjoy, relax.”

“Let’s go,” the new voice of Monday Night continues, swaying back and forth. “Feels so good, man. You didn’t tune in to watch a football game or a great fight to feel like shit.”

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