Big Weekend: Rich Eisen reflects on NFL Network turning 20 and calling Chiefs-Dolphins on Sunday

Rich Eisen has had many memorable moments during his long tenure at NFL Network. This weekend though might end up being tough to beat.

Saturday marks 20 years since NFL Network went on the air with Eisen anchoring “Total Access.” On Sunday, Eisen will call one of the biggest games of the first nine weeks when the Kansas City Chiefs face the Miami Dolphins in Frankfurt, Germany.

“It’s amazing that 20 years ago was the beginning of the advent of of a network that changed the lives of so many fans. I truly believe that,” Eisen said. “And then a day later is one of the biggest games we've ever had, which is obviously what all of us dreamed about that this network would be when we started it.”

And Eisen has been there every step of the way. Much like Chris Berman and Bob Ley can discuss the evolution of ESPN, Eisen can do the same thing with NFL Network as he was the first on-air host to be hired.

NFL Network wasn't the first league-run channel to go on the air — that honor goes to NBA TV in 1999 — but it has been a driver in the league becoming year-around viewing as well as providing a template for making routine events into must watch.

Due to NFL Network, the schedule release has gone from a random news release drop in early April, to a two-hour, prime-time special in early May broadcast on multiple networks.

Coverage of the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine has led to the draft process being its own season full of debates from fans on who their teams should select. The draft itself has gone from a weekend event in New York to a three-day traveling road show, with the first two days in prime time, that is carried on multiple networks.

It also made a small package of Thursday night games that started in 2006 into a season-long package that Amazon Prime Video pays over $1 billion per season to carry.

“These are all things that I am proud to have been a part of and watch develop based on the maturation of NFL Network. It has grown into a heck of a lot more that is a major source of pride,” Eisen said.

When asked to look back at the start of NFL Network, Eisen said the lead up made him “nervouscited,” which was a mixture of nervous and excited. However, it wasn't until the Super Bowl in Houston three months later that he was confident he made the right decision leaving ESPN.

“There were a ton of moving parts for me. I left ESPN and I had got married in June (2003). I remember walking down the hallway at the Convention Center and I got emotional because I knew it was going to be big and everything was going to be cool,” he said.

Bob Thompson, the former president of Fox Sports Networks and co-founder of the Big Ten Network, said the start of NFL Network gave the league a year-around presence but more importantly gave value to Thursday nights.

“They showed that people would watch games outside of Sunday and Monday. I think it also gave everybody else a sense of comfort that the chances of success (for starting their own networks) were pretty good,” he said.

The Big Ten and NHL networks started in 2007 and MLB Network went on the air in 2009. It also led to the start of networks by the Pac- 12 (2012), SEC (2014) and ACC (2019).

According to Nielsen, NFL Network is distributed in 51.1 million homes. That's a decline from the 72.5 million homes it was in 10 years ago as more people move away from cable and satellite. NFL Network though was made available direct to consumer over the summer for those who purchase the NFL+ streaming service.

Sunday’s game in Germany will be the biggest on NFL Network since 2007, when the New England Patriots went for an undefeated regular season against the New York Giants. That game was simulcast on NBC and CBS while the Chiefs-Dolphins game will only be on NFL Network and local channels in Miami and Kansas City.

“It’s pretty sweet to witness an international crowd, but I think the folks in Germany truly get the sport. They were exposed to it significantly in (the former) World League,” Eisen said. “It is the Chiefs, and Patrick Mahomes is coming to town along with a high-flying Miami Dolphins team with Tyreek Hill facing his former teammates. It truly touches on every aspect of storylines. There's also no question Taylor Swift has made the Chiefs much more of an international commodity than the actual Super Bowl. I couldn’t be more excited that it coincides with the network anniversary.”