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Midway through the telecast of this NFL season’s first Monday night game, Eli Manning asked his brother Peyton what he would do when a coach called a play he did not like.

“I’m going to call my own play,” Peyton Manning said while mimicking a quarterback looking over to the sideline as if his helmet radio was not working. “I’m going to call my own play. ‘I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you.’ That’s what you do.”

He added that he would have to give the assistant equipment manager, who was sure to be yelled at by the coach for the malfunctioning headset, a nice holiday present.

It was a prime example of an NFL moment suited to the brothers who are former star quarterbacks: a funny, well-told, behind-the-scenes anecdote that revealed how football actually works. The generally well-received telecast was full of such nuggets, prompting optimism about ESPN’s evolving experiment.

The Mannings were not on ESPN’s main presentation of Monday Night Football. Their showcase was the debut of an alternate telecast option that will run nine more times this season on ESPN2 or ESPN+, a streaming service. The Mannings will work two more telecasts in September, including the game Monday night between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, with the rest of the schedule to be determined.

ESPN and other networks spent years trying to hire Peyton Manning as a color commentator, and he finally agreed to work in a system that demands a lot less work and travel than the main broadcast. He appears live from a friend’s warehouse in Denver and Eli Manning appears from his home in New Jersey.

Alternate telecasts are not new for ESPN, but the network has been increasing them recently. “We have done them across more sports and leagues than we have done them in the past, and we have done them with different approaches,” said Freddy Rolon, an ESPN vice-president.

And it is not just ESPN presenting sports in multiple ways. This month, Triller provided an alternate commentary stream featuring former U.S. president Donald Trump for a pay-per-view boxing card. CBS and Nickelodeon announced they would again produce a slime-filled, child-friendly telecast of an NFL playoff game. NBC, Fox, Amazon and others have their own versions of alternate telecasts.

Such telecasts date to at least 2004, when ESPN showed a behind-the-scenes feed of a college football game, or perhaps to 1980, when NBC tried an announcerless broadcast with just the natural sights and sounds of the game. But the modern alternate broadcast dates to 2014, when ESPN first tried out its “megacast” presentation of the college football national championship game, with feeds featuring play breakdowns, celebrity guests, home-team-radio audio and other commentators.

It is no coincidence that ESPN has been the biggest proponent of alternate feeds. Unlike many competitors, it controls numerous sports channels on which alternate feeds can be run. But with the rise of powerful internet and streaming services, alternate feeds do not need to be placed on television channels.

“There isn’t a finite number of streams,” said Sam Flood, the head of sports production at NBC.

Until recently, alternate feeds were mostly targeted at hard-core fans. Alternate telecasts with coaches breaking down plays or using advanced statistics are less likely to attract a casual fan. Instead, they draw established fans who want to learn more or stay engaged in a game that is boring or a blowout.

The Nickelodeon game, however, attempts to get children and families who otherwise would not watch football to do so, and Triller’s stream with Trump was not for the boxing fan but for perhaps the boxing-curious fan who would be drawn in, for one reason or another, by the former president.

“We are aiming at people who never really watch boxing, some who don’t know what Triller is,” said Thorsten Meier, chief operating officer of Triller Fight Club.

The dirty little secret of alternate feeds, however, is that nobody watches them. Not nobody, exactly, but nobody in television terms.

About 14.5 million people watched the standard telecast of the game between Baltimore and Las Vegas in Week 1 of the NFL season, while just 800,000 people watched the presentation by the Manning brothers. Just around 5 per cent of the audience chose the alternate telecast. In some ways, though, that is a great success; whatever is on ESPN2 during Monday Night Football usually draws only hundreds of thousands of viewers anyway.

But no matter how loudly fans might complain about announcers or wish telecasts did more of this or less of that, the fact remains that when presented with alternatives, viewers usually stick with what they know. Meier of Triller did not have final numbers, but he said the Trump alternate commentary was the least popular one of the night, behind the traditional English-language and Spanish-language commentaries.

Networks also have to be careful about cannibalization. Most media companies that own sports rights these days belong to huge conglomerates with numerous concerns; ESPN is owned by Disney, which also owns ABC and cable channels such as FX. The company could show versions of football across ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 or show a sitcom on ABC, football on ESPN and a different sport on ESPN2. Homing in on fans of a specific sport or trying to attract casual fans can come at the cost of other corporate priorities.

Where alternate telecasts really shine, then, is as a laboratory. They are often where new things in televised sports are tested before they are ready for prime time, such as which advanced statistics to show fans and how to do so. When sports television is inevitably saturated by odds and betting data in the coming years, you can be sure it had its start on betting- and fantasy-focused alternate streams.