Rush Limbaugh can now add "cheeseheads" to his "ditto heads" fan base.
As the NFL kicks off its new season this week, conservative talk-show host Limbaugh will swap Beltway bureaucracy for pigskin politicking on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" pregame show where he will analyze the day's matchups alongside veteran sportscaster Chris Berman and former NFL stars Tom Jackson, Steve Young, and Michael Irvin.
"He's a lightning rod," says Bob Rauscher, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for NFL shows. He hopes the Limbaugh experiment will entice new viewers. "Rush will bring lively debate and a curiosity factor."
Limbaugh, who will keep his day job as syndicated radio host, made a cameo appearance Thursday on a special edition, preceding the New York Jets-Washington Redskins season opener. His regular gig begins Sunday and runs each week this season.
The Limbaugh-ESPN pairing is the latest attempt to win football fans' attention during the competitive pregame-show wars. Fox, for example, added a buxom weather girl - ostensibly to alert fans, for example, that it often snows during December games at Chicago's Soldier Field - and comedian Jimmy Kimmel to spice up its NFL show.
This season, newly minted sideline reporter Lisa Guerrero, who replaces Melissa Stark on Monday Night Football, has already created a stir by posing in lingerie for the men's magazine FHM.
And on HBO's "Inside the NFL," comedians George Lopez and Wanda Sykes sit alongside Bob Costas and several former pro footballers.
But in a recent Sports Illustrated column, writer Roy S. Johnson criticized the move for politicizing spectator sports.
Rauscher and Limbaugh insist "NFL Countdown" won't become "Crossfire," the politically aggressive show on CNN. When it comes to California controversies, for example, Oakland owner Al Davis is fair game; embattled Gov. Gray Davis is not.
Limbaugh, who worked for baseball's Kansas City Royals before tackling talk radio two decades ago, lobbied hard for a spot on ABC's Monday Night Football several years ago. Instead, the job went to left-leaning comedian Dennis Miller, who lasted one season before being replaced by football lifer John Madden.
During a recent teleconference with reporters, Limbaugh said he was delighted to join the football fray. He began casual conversations with ESPN more than a decade ago and, on several occasions, has visited the cable network's Connecticut studios.
"I've been watching these football shows and saying, 'I'd love to do that,' " says Limbaugh. "ESPN is giving me the chance. I'm really looking forward to this."
His sports background includes a tepid stint as an offensive lineman during high school in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Limbaugh maintains long-running friendships with several former and current NFL owners and players, perks created by his widespread radio fame.
Plans for Limbaugh's ESPN appearances include weekly essays spanning 90 seconds to two minutes, and three to four "challenge" segments where he will offer a counterpoint on a specific issue.
"These shows are tremendously competitive, and everyone is trying to be more creative than the next guy," says Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports executive who now serves as an industry consultant. "Putting Rush on is the right decision. We'll see if he moves the needle."
Fox has the most-watched pregame show, attracting nearly 5 million viewers a week last season, ahead of CBS (3.8 million).
ESPN drew an average audience of 2.1 million, but, as a cable network, it doesn't reach as many households as Fox or CBS. Of all the shows, only ESPN's increased its audience last year. Much of the credit goes to the show's hard-core football focus, a mind-set that could be compromised by Limbaugh's perceived lack of credentials.
Industry experts believe Limbaugh has a better chance for success than Miller. His sports background makes it easier to discern shotgun formation from NRA legislation and, as a radio personality, Limbaugh knows how to blend news and entertainment - the crux of sports coverage.
Attempts to pair atypical broadcasters with big-time sports have been tried off and on during the past 40 years. The ultimate example is Howard Cosell, the verbose and opinionated New York lawyer who morphed into the voice of Monday Night Football during the 1970s.
"Rush has a lot of fans and he is closer to a Howard Cosell-type than Miller," says Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst at Kagan World Media. "People either loved or hated Cosell. They just hated Miller."
Limbaugh already has aspirations for calling games, not just discussing them on a studio show. He acknowledged the likelihood of "embarrassing times" on ESPN, moments when his comments may make Berman and his cohosts wince.
Rivals, for the moment, aren't rushing to judgment. The nuances of each show help give the networks a distinct football identity.
"This is a different way of dressing it up," said Eric Mann, senior producer of "The NFL Today" on CBS. "All of these shows overlap to some degree."
Boomer Esiason, a former NFL quarterback and co-host of "The NFL Today," knows the sting of broadcast failure.
He spent a season on Monday Night Football before ABC bounced him in favor of the erudite but ineffective Miller.
Even if Limbaugh flops, give him and ESPN credit for trying something new. Despite the scrutiny of millions of football fans and poison-pen critics, Mr. Esiason says swapping John Kerry for Kerry Collins still carries cachet.
"If you love football," Esiason says, "this is a job anyone would love to have."