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Iron Mike Tackles ESPNews

Aug 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Just in time for the kickoff of the professional football season, ESPN has signed Mike Ditka as an on-air analyst, according to the ABC/Disney-owned network. This marks the first time the legendary former Chicago Bears coach has worked in a recurring role on a cable channel instead of a broadcast network.

Mr. Ditka, known in his playing days as “Iron Mike,” will be seen primarily on ESPNews, a spinoff channel that reaches about 46 million homes (compared with ESPN, which is in more than 87 million homes). His hire is an effort to ramp up interest in ESPNews as it expands its mandate beyond being a kind of Headline News for sports.

The spinoff channel is launching a new one-hour Friday night program, “Football Friday,” the first addition to its schedule in nine months. The idea is to use “Football Friday” and “Monday Quarterback” to bracket the weekend games with pre- and postgame analysis.

“The Friday show gives fans an opportunity to look ahead. It’s another opportunity in long form to just talk football,” said Norby Williamson, senior VP and managing editor of ESPN.

Mr. Ditka’s deal includes a commentator position on “Monday Quarterback,” a live four-hour analysis of weekend games airing at noon on ESPNews, according to Mr. Williamson. “When you say `Ditka,’ there’s credibility there,” Mr. Williamson said. “Clearly he’s stayed in touch with the league and is very in touch with the game. It was a no-brainer.”

Mr. Ditka didn’t disclose his compensation or terms of the deal, but he said one incentive to make the move to cable was the opportunity for more freedom to speak his mind, which he says he did not have when he worked for CBS Sports between 2000 and 2002. Mr. Ditka also provided NFL analysis for NBC Sports from 1993 to 1996.

“ESPN will let me be me. They don’t want me to be anybody else,” Mr. Ditka told TelevisionWeek. “Sometimes [a network] will try to make you be somebody else, which was the case at CBS. Anybody can just read statistics. With ESPN, if you want your opinion heard, that’s the place to be.”

Mr. Ditka will also be an occasional analyst on the primary ESPN channel’s highest-rated show, “SportsCenter” (airing at various times daily), the network’s 90-minute “Monday Night Countdown” and other shows.

His Chicago attorney Steve Mandell,who brokered the deal, said Mr. Ditka considered several commentator offers before he chose ESPN. “On other stations, there are limits as to what you can say and do,” Mr. Mandell said. “Here he can be a voice in any number of programs the same day and be himself.”

A spokesperson for CBS Sports had no comment.

There had been rumors Mr. Ditka might leave sports for politics. Earlier this year he was courted to run as a Republican for an open Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. He would have faced Democratic candidate Barack Obama, a state senator who recently keynoted the Democratic convention. After several weeks of rumors and headlines, Mr. Ditka decided against running.

Now Iron Mike will be asked to fire up ESPNews, which has never had much of a profile aside from being a round-the-clock sports news grind. Launched in 1996, the network has enjoyed steady but slow growth over the past 13 quarters, mostly due to continued expansion of its subscriber base. The challenge now is to establish ESPNews as a separate and unique destination along with ESPN’s domestic network family-which includes ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Now and ESPN Today.

One of ESPN’s biggest and most expensive deals is for professional football. The high-profile hires and spinoff channels are all ways to leverage the value of that contract, which runs until the end of the 2005 season. In addition to “Monday Quarterback,” the main network also airs “Sunday NFL Countdown,” “NFL PrimeTime” and “Monday Night Countdown.”

Mike Ditka is one of the most widely known NFL personalities, having parlayed his coaching career into advertising spots and motivational speaking. As the former head coach of the Chicago Bears, he led the team from 1982 to 1992, during which the Bears won six NFC Central titles and the 1985 Super Bowl, beating the New England Patriots.

When Mr. Ditka left the team in 1993, he joined NBC Sports as an analyst for “NFL on NBC.” His three-year broadcasting stint gave way to a return to coaching in 1997, when he took command of the New Orleans Saints for three seasons.

After he was fired from the Saints in 2000, Mr. Ditka joined CBS Sports a mere six weeks later for an analyst spot on “NFL Today.” At the time, he gave reporters the same sentiment he expressed to TelevisionWeek. “I don’t want to try to be anybody other than who I am,” he said in one report. “I hope I can.”

Mr. Ditka left the network in 2002.