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‘Monday Night Football’ in Las Vegas will have everything but fans

Updated September 20, 2020 - 1:47 pm

Steve Levy grew up dreaming of broadcasting “Monday Night Football.”

He got a shot last season, along with Brian Griese and Louis Riddick, when the trio called the Raiders-Broncos matchup as part of the annual season-opening doubleheader.

Last month, after having been at ESPN since 1993, Levy was elevated to his new role as just the seventh play-by-play announcer in the history of the franchise. Now he’s having to learn his new job on the fly — as are Griese and Riddick, who were promoted alongside him — while navigating his way through a pandemic.

“I needed the world to pretty much come to an end to get this job,” Levy jokes.

A perfect storm of football

Some Monday night games are, admittedly, bigger than others. But this Monday night? Hoo boy.

The Raiders are facing the Saints in the first NFL game in Las Vegas. It’s the first event inside Allegiant Stadium. And it’s the 50th anniversary — to the day — of “Monday Night Football.” To celebrate that last fact, the game will be simulcast on ABC starting at 5 p.m., marking the TV institution’s return to its original home for the first time since 2005.

“It really couldn’t be any better. They’re coming off a thrilling Game 1 win,” Levy says of the Raiders, “and now into the brand-new building with an ‘A’ kind of opponent — a star-studded opponent who a lot of people have in the Super Bowl. It really has everything except the fans, unfortunately.”

As a result of COVID-19 safety protocols, not only are fans not allowed inside Allegiant Stadium, the announcers can’t make their traditional on-field appearance to touch base with the players and coaches. Sideline reporter Lisa Salter, in her ninth season with “Monday Night Football,” isn’t even allowed on the sidelines.

“It’s not the same, there’s no doubt,” Griese says of the lack of fans. “There’s nothing the three of us can do to replace the energy of The Black Hole. … I think everybody understands the potential of when we do get back to normal and that stadium is full, how exciting that’s going to be for everybody.”

It’s not just the ticketholders who lose out under the current scenario, says Griese, the former AFC Pro Bowl quarterback who’s been analyzing college games for ESPN and ABC since 2009.

“As an announcer, you really are dependent upon the fans for energy,” he says. “It’s not just the players on the field, it’s those of us calling the game. The rise of the crowd helps you with the rise of your inflection and understanding when big moments are happening. … I’m always talking with our audio people, ‘I need more natural sound from the stadium.’ Because it naturally helps you with your voice and your inflection to meet the moment.”

There are some benefits, though, to broadcasting from a largely empty stadium, Griese admits.

“For fans, you can really get closer and more intimate with the game, because you can hear so much more on the field and at the line of scrimmage. You can hear more of the collisions and the impacts. I think that’s interesting, and I think we’re going to continue to accentuate that.”

He points to the Raiders’ Derek Carr calling out “Cindy Gruden,” the wife of his head coach, as part of an audible last week against the Carolina Panthers. That’s something fans likely would not have heard — at least not so clearly — under normal circumstances.

“The other side is, I can’t hang out with my guys,” Levy says of the COVID-19 measures. “I really can’t hang out with Griese and Riddick. I can’t have a beer with my producer. We can’t be in the same room. Do you know that we can’t go to the game together? Louis, Brian and I need three different vehicles to go to the game.”

Barometer game

For most Las Vegans, Monday will mark their first chance to really get a feel for the inside of Allegiant Stadium. Several segments will be dedicated to showcasing its various features, something Levy says ESPN owes the fans.

But there’s also a game to be played.

“I think for the Raiders, this is a barometer game to see where they are in this kind of rebuilding process. And they’ve got a lot of young pieces they’re excited about, and I’m excited to watch them,” Griese says, name-checking rookie wide receivers Bryan Edwards and Henry Ruggs and second-year running back Josh Jacobs. “But it will be a challenge for sure.”

He likes the Raiders’ big, physical offensive line, with its additions last season of Richie Incognito and Trent Brown, and the team’s speed upgrade.

“I think they have the right pieces,” Griese says. “Now, they’re young, so with young players, they’re going to have ups and downs. But I think on the offensive side, they’ve got a nucleus they can build around. Defensively, I think it’s a work in progress. Honestly, I think they have to be better.”

The key for the Raiders on Monday, Griese says, will be finding some pass rushing.

“If they don’t get pressure, this is going to be a long night for the Raiders. If you just sit back, try to play zone, Drew Brees is absolutely going to eat your lunch.”

Worth the wait

For Levy, even with the restrictions and limitations — plus hurdles such as having key members of the production crew who were always in the booth with them now stationed as far away as the other side of a stadium — it’s still a dream job.

It’s certainly a long way from his days working the 2:30 a.m. “SportsCenter” shift in Bristol, Connecticut.

“It is honestly the highlight of my professional career, doing ‘Monday Night Football,’ ” he says. “I can’t wait to hear the music on Monday night and bring it to the people.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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