Peyton Manning (Courtesy of Getty Images)
Peyton Manning wants to go to the mat in his ongoing bid to create a sports-content empire.
The football legend, who gained notice last year when he and his brother Eli launched an accompanying “ManningCast” for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” is backing a similar concept for ESPN’s UFC pay-per-view streams. Fans who opt to watch Saturday night’s welterweight bout between Kamaru Usman and Leon Edwards via ESPN+ will also have access to a second stream featuring Rob Gronkowski and his brothers Chris, Dan, Glenn and Gordie Jr. along with father Gordon, who will host what is being called “ UFC 278 with The Gronks.” The show will mark Rob Gronkowski’s first appearance on ESPN in a host role. Guests will include UFC legend Chuck Liddell, and up-and-coming UFC stars Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann.
“You could not get a more perfect group of guys to host it,” Peyton Manning tells Variety in an interview. His Omaha Productions launched the ManningCast and, in May, tested a alternate take on PGA Golf with conversation from Joe Buck and Michael Collins. The Gronkowskis, he adds, “are a close family. They are fun. They are not afraid to laugh.”
Nor should the audience. Manning expects that ESPN’s UFC “GronkCast” will “have a few audibles in there” and might even tilt toward the rambunctious.
When fans have ready access to a traditional game broadcast, some of the “alterna-casts” around them can afford to be messy. Omaha’s various “megacast” efforts — another one featuring Pat McAfee and college football is on tap for ESPN for the fall — represent what TV executives hope will be a format that captures the attention of viewers who are hard to corral. The modern-day fan base is increasingly prone to seek out clips, stats and commentary about games and shows from social-media sources, and a second sportscast, executives hope, will keep them focused on TV.
“We are always trying to figure out new ways to engage with fans more and meet them sort of where they are, and provide them the experience they want to have,” says Glenn Jacobs, ESPN’s vice president of MMA production, in an interview. “If we can provide a different experience for different fans and give them more reason to hang out and watch a broadcast longer, that’s a win.”
Wrapping the technique around a pay-per-view UFC match brings new challenges to ESPN, which does not make the contest available via its flagship cable networks. Even so, MMA die-hards won’t be the only ones who can gain access. “UFC 278 with The Gronks” will simulcast between 9 and 10 p.m. eastern on ESPN and ESPN+, then move at 10 p.m. to ESPN+ only, where it will stream until the conclusion of the event. Fans who purchase the pay per view get the traditional stream hosted by Jon Anik, Daniel Cormier, and Joe Rogan, as well as the separate one with the Gronkowskis.
Gronkowski has become a popular guest since retiring from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and after he served a guest on ESPN’s “ManningCast,” he reached out to see if he might do more. “His team is the one that reached out about possibly doing something once they knew we were looking to expand,” Manning recounts. “We kind of jumped at the opportunity and it all came together pretty quickly.”
ESPN is heading into “uncharted territory” in trying to wrap the new TV format with mixed-martial arts fighting, Jacobs acknowledges. “You have to keep in mind that when an NFL game is scheduled, you can be pretty darn sure there’s going to be a fourth quarter. In a UFC fight, you don’t know how long the fight will last. It could last a minute. A fight could last 30 minutes.” ESPN wants the Gronkowski show to have the feel of a hang out at a bar or Buffalo Wild Wings, he added.
ESPN intends to keep trying UFC “megacast” concepts, the executive added, though there is no firm timeline for when others might surface.
For Omaha Productions, the “Gronkcast” is the latest play on two concepts. The company has produced different documentary series led by Manning and others like Vince Carter. And it is adding other “megacast” efforts to ESPN mainstays. A project built around Pat McAfee and college football is expected to debut soon, says Manning, as well as s second season of the “ManningCast.”
“We are starting out small, trying to do something well, and then kind of grow,” he says.
Being a producer isn’t that much different from playing football, Manning suggests. “I think one thing my coaches would tell you is that ‘Peyton asks a lot of questions.’ That’s how you learn, right? And it’s also an admittance of what you don’t know. If I don’t know something, the worst thing you can do is not ask,” Manning says. “I feel like it’s been a thread throughout my football career, and I’m trying to do that in this second chapter. If you do the work as hard as you can to prepare, pressure really shouldn’t come into play.”
Variety's Brian Steinberg contributed to this post.