ESPN and Omaha Productions’ ManningCast remained an industry leader in Season 3. Boardroom set out to learn what’s behind Peyton & Eli’s secret sauce.
After three seasons and countless imitators, ESPN and Omaha Productions’ ManningCast remains the gold standard for alternative sports telecasts. Peyton and Eli Manning‘s 10-episode run featured a blend of insightful and entertaining insight and analysis with celebrity guests from the worlds of sports and entertainment, averaging 1.24 million viewers on ESPN2 during the regular season.
How and why does the ManningCast still resonate across the sporting landscape, generating hysterical viral moments without the hot takes now ubiquitous in all media, sports or otherwise?
“At the end of the day, it comes down to Peyton and Eli,” Sam Pepper, the ManningCast’s Supervising Producer for Omaha Productions, told Boardroom. “You have two of the greatest football players to ever live that also happen to be two of the most engaging, smart, and funny people on television.
“They give off the vibe that both the viewer and whoever comes on the show are just watching football on the couch, a positive celebration of football in an age where there’s a lot of negativity on television out there. And it’s a celebration of family, too, with brothers just watching a game together.”
The common denominator between the ManningCast, the NBA on TNT‘s studio show, or other generally beloved programs boils down to a good hang, said Pepper. Peyton and Eli achieved that by leaning into things that had already come naturally to them. Not calling the traditional play-by-play, the Mannings are able to talk about what they see on the field, become excited in the moment, and have fun with the guests watching with them.
While Pepper, ESPN, and Omaha felt like the element of fun was great over the first two seasons, they wanted to embrace more intelligent, analytical angles for Season 3. With the help of digital creative agency Girraphic, ManningCast integrated an augmented reality table where Peyton could uniquely display his savant-level analysis in an interactive way with viewers.
Another addition for the third season was the Perfect Prediction Panel, where guests would forecast whether a team would score from the red zone, and how, keeping a leaderboard throughout the season. It should come as no surprise that Week 10 guest Patrick Mahomes fared the best, perfectly calling a Denver Broncos three-play scoring drive to the Mannings’ delight.
During that guest appearance, Mahomes also admitted he’d worn the same pair of red underwear every game day since his rookie season for good luck, a disclosure that instantly went viral. Some of Pepper’s other favorite guests from the season included John McEnroe and Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 1, Tiffany Haddish in Week 7, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his donkey Lulu in Week 9, and Mina Kimes and her dog Lenny in Week 15.
“It’s a thrill to be able to watch football with all the guests that we’ve had this season,” Peyton Manning said. “From current players to coaches to action stars and comedians, we’ve been able to have so many great friends with us, wanting to celebrate the game.”
That action star was Schwarzenegger, whose feeding of Lulu on air elicited reactions of shock and surprise from the Manning brothers.
“Who wouldn’t want to watch a game with Peyton and Eli? They know so much about the game, and they’re hilarious,” Schwarzenegger said. “When you go on the ManningCast, you know they just want to talk football as if you are in their living room with them. And more importantly, you know you’re going to have a fantastic time. Eli and Peyton are the best. I loved it.”
Later on in Week 10, after guest segments with Mahomes and Lindsey Vonn, NFL Network host and TV personality Kyle Brandt joined the Mannings for the remainder of what turned out to be a thrilling, bizarre Broncos-Bills game. He called it an appearance he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
Most of even the best-produced shows and podcasts grow formulaic, Brandt told Boardroom. A guest is welcomed, hosts throw an icebreaker in, they discuss various topics and headlines, bring up some offbeat personal story, the guest is asked to promote whatever they have going on, and the segment ends.
“The ManningCast is like jumping onto a moving skateboard while you’re blindfolded,” Brandt said. “I’ve done a lot of podcasts, radio shows, and TV talk shows. I’ve never had more adrenaline than I had on the ManningCast.”
To Brandt, it was the combination of talking football with Peyton and Eli live without knowing what would happen during the game. He compared it to being on stage with two incredible Broadway actors, going on a ScienceCast with Albert Einstein and Neil deGrasse Tyson, or being Christian Laettner on the 1992 Dream Team next to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Brandt wasn’t exactly calling for the ball during his segment, but he wanted to contribute.
Peyton and Eli like to be pushed and asked questions, Brandt was told when he joined the show during a close game. So he called Peyton out after Manning said the game was over in the second quarter, which Brandt said Peyton loved. He then asked the brothers whether it felt better to win a big game in front of your home fans or take the air out of a stadium on the road.
“You could almost see them light up because it’s a question about football and something they can relate to. They both just ran with it,” Brandt said. “It’s not going on Peyton and Eli’s podcast, and it’s not sitting there watching a game. It’s both at the same time. I was really invigorated by it. I don’t think there’s anything like it.”
The guest booking process is a collaboration between ESPN and Omaha, with the main criteria being that the person needs to love football. Nicole Solomowitz, Omaha’s Head of Talent, and Jen Aiello, the lead talent booker, factor in who the Mannings and ESPN set their sights on, prioritizing ties to the particular team playing that night, enthusiasm and passion for the game and the willingness to join the show remotely. If guests have a previous relationship with one of the Mannings, that certainly works in their favor.
When able, Omaha will conduct pre-interviews with guests to reinforce the show’s overall vibe and potential talking points, setting the tone for what the show will be about. Conversations with Vonn before the Week 10 show and Bruce Arians before the Wild Card Weekend broadcast were singled out as especially helpful.
“They got me ready as if I was going to have to speak for a 10-part documentary about myself,” Brandt said. “They’re asking me things about my high school football career. I’m not making this up. They probably would’ve made fun of the haircut I had at the time. They’re that deep and thorough.”
During the NFL season, Pepper speaks nearly daily with lead ESPN producers Drew Gallagher and Joshua Hoffman, discussing guests, talking points, research, and show elements to the point where it feels like they’re all working for the same company. Now, with numerous alternative broadcasts and podcasts in the Omaha stable, the company’s come a long way since Josh Pyatt and Jamie Horowitz pitched Peyton on the concept in 2020.
But still, it’s the ManningCast flagship that still resonates the most.
“Viewers have told us they like the mixture of authentic, off-the-cuff commentary from Peyton and Eli, the insightful, yet laid-back nature of the guests, and the spontaneity of the show,” Gallagher said. “The overall environment leads to unprompted moments, such as Tua playing his guitar or Arnold feeding his pet donkey, becoming signature segments viewers love.”
As of now, ManningCast will have the same number of shows for next season, Pepper said. Among dream guests he’d like to have in the future, he mentioned Larry David (Eli specifically singled out the Curb Your Enthusiasm star as someone he’d love to have on the show eventually), Adam Sandler, Denzel Washington, and Ryan Reynolds.
There are plenty of imitators in the alternative broadcast space. But as long as Peyton and Eli headline the ManningCast, Pepper believes there’s no replicating the chemistry the brothers bring to live TV. Like Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on ESPN, they have the chemistry of longtime friends who know how to play off one another, Brandt noted.
“They’re like sitcom characters in a way,” Brandt said. “One of them is the super erudite one, and then one of them is the sillier one who people at home sympathize with. Then you, as a guest, come in, and you’re the neighbor next door who peeks his head in and tries to contribute.”
In the world of alternative broadcasts, there are the Mannings, and then there’s everyone else. With Peyton, Eli, and their teams at ESPN and Omaha in place, they plan on keeping it that way for years to come.
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