ESPN lands A-Rod. Could Peyton Manning be next?

Peyton-Manning-booth
Peyton Manning (center) more than held his own in the booth alongside NBC’s Cris Collinsworth (left) and Al Michaels (right) during the NFL’s 2016 season opener.

ESPN just pulled off a remarkable deal in landing A-Rod. Could the network also land Peyton Manning?

On Tuesday, ESPN announced it has selected former Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez to replace new Yankees manager Aaron Boone as an analyst on Sunday Night Baseball. It’s an interesting deal, considering A-Rod is an analyst for Fox Sports, a gig he doesn’t plan on giving up.

Instead, the two competing networks will share A-Rod; during the regular season, he’ll call games for ESPN alongside newly hired play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian (who replaced longtime broadcaster Dan Shulman) and analyst Jessica Mendoza, and during the postseason, he’ll continue to provide pregame and postgame analysis for Fox Sports.

Camera icon Fox Sports
Former Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez (left), will continue his role on Fox Sports during the MLB postseason.

The move filled one big hole in ESPN’s talent lineup, but another one remains: the analyst chair vacated by new Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders coach Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football.

The position is arguably one of the most important for ESPN, considering Monday Night Football (despite a dip in ratings the past few years) remains the most-watched program on the network. It’s also a challenging void to fill, considering Gruden was also an important part of the network’s NFL draft coverage and contributed to its extensive Super Bowl coverage and his Gruden’s QB Camp series was extremely popular with fans.

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The safest bet is ESPN will consider someone internally, such as former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who will call the Pro Bowl alongside Monday Night Football play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough. Monday Night Countdown colleague Steve Young also would be a serious contender, but he ruled himself out for the job already. And former Cardinals and Temple head coach Bruce Arians has indicated he’d be interested, saying it would be a “dream job.”

But if there were a dream candidate for ESPN, it would be former Colts and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Could ESPN emulate CBS’s move last season to sign Tony Romo and finally be the network to persuade Manning to give up his lucrative career as a commercial spokesman?

It certainly seems like a stretch. Since retiring from the NFL in 2016, Manning has pushed back every time his name as been mentioned for a booth job. Ahead of the 2016 season, the New York Daily News’ Bob Raissman reported that network sources said Manning didn’t show any interest in TV. And last year, SportsBusiness Daily’s John Ourand reported that “people who are close to him say he has no interest in being a sports broadcaster. … He has little interest in traveling every Sunday. He has little interest in going into work every Sunday to do a studio show.”

“There’s no question he’d be terrific [on-air],” CBS NFL analyst and former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said during a CBS media event back in 2016. “My guess is he wants to be involved in the game, a little more hands on. That might be being a general manager or ownership.”

Despite the long odds, Stephanie Druley, a senior VP at ESPN who is among the group of executives that will decide whom the network ultimately hires, told Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch that Manning has been made aware of ESPN’s interest in potentially hiring him to replace Gruden.

“We like Peyton Manning,” Druley said. “And we would be foolish not to talk to him.”

Despite his reported lack of interest, Manning did sit in the booth alongside Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth during NBC’s broadcast of the 2016 regular-season opener between the Broncos and Panthers. While most reporting centered on his awkward handshake with Michaels, Manning broke down several plays in an off-the-cuff performance that was so good, Michaels joked he should use it as his “audition tape.”