It is generally regarded as an institution, a fixture in pro sports for more than a quarter of a century that has even spawned a long line of merchandising and collectibles.

But more than a third of the way through the National Football League season, Monday Night Football may be on the ropes.

It used to be sports fans could adjust their schedules to be home at 8 p.m. Eastern time for the Monday night matchup and smile at the comments of a Howard Cosell even if the game stunk, More often than not, the game itself was a sideshow to the antics in the booth and MNF was bigger than life.

Ratings have slid through the past several years for ABC and its MNF crew, but not the dramatic drop the program has endured this season. Experts sought out answers before this year and blamed it on a variety of reasons: more alternatives for viewers on Monday night with cable and other alternative sports programming; the lack of enough intriguing matchups and some even complained the chemistry in the broadcast booth was lacking.

There wasn't much the NFL could do about the competition for viewers; with Fox Sports, ESPN (owned by the same company, Disney, that owns ABC) and scores of other cable outlets offering alternative programming on Monday night, Monday Night Football was facing the same problems other programs were on commercial TV: too much competition.

The theory regarding good matchups also seemed to be bogus; each year the defending Super Bowl or league champ kicks off the broadcast schedule and this year, Denver did likewise for MNF. Last week, MNF had possibly the best matchup of the season, unbeaten Minnesota and rookie sensation Randy Moss against the two-time defending NFC champion Green Bay Packers. But even that matchup didn't seem to get MNF out of its slump.

So the ABC brass did shake up the booth, replacing aging Frank Gifford with retiring quarterback Boomer Esiason. The change made sense; Gifford had become a parody of himself along with his over hyped wife, Kathie Lee; Esiason had been in touch with the modern NFL and had a great sense of broadcasting with virtually no experience. Gifford was sent packing to ESPN Sports Zone headquarters in Baltimore teamed with the very loud Chris Berman for awkward pre and halftime shows.

Still, even the trio of Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Esiason doesn't seem to be stopping the slide of viewers away from the national game of the week.

ABC also heard complaints the games were ending well past midnight in the east, so it moved back the starting time 40 minutes to 8:20 p.m. eastern time, much to the chagrin of the folks in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco who are stuck in freeway traffic when the Monday night kickoff begins at 5:20 local time.

Part of the problem lies with collectors and fans who stuck around and rediscovered their love affair with baseball this fall. The home run chase by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated sports fans in Septembers compared to previous years when strikes or dull pennant races sent collectors and TV viewers scurrying to the NFL in September. Even when MNF thought it had a breakthrough date in late September when no playoff games were scheduled, the wild card playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and Sosa vs. the San Francisco Giants whipped the dull Detroit Lions-Tampa Bay Bucs matchup in all of the key markets in the country.

The momentum of this year's great baseball season has carried over to the playoffs, highlighted by the New York Yankees continued great run of victories. Without the nation's No. 1 televison market to bolster the ratings, MNF has struggled against post-season baseball.

There is some hope, however, that MNF might regain some of its luster. The World Series will end at the end of the month and with the NBA lockout continuing, fans might come back to MNF in the second half of the season, particularly if there are interesting races in the six divisions. With a few exceptions, most of the MNF matchups in the second half of the season are interesting and involve potential playoff teams. Hockey has never been a challenger in the field of national television interest and won't be a factor again this fall.

But TV habits are as fickle as fans; regular NFL viewers may find they can live without MNF, especially in an era when ESPN televises a national game on Sunday night and real die-hard pro football fans can buy Direct TV or Primestar TV and get all the out of market NFL games on Sunday. After all, there is just so much football even a die-hard fan can digest.

Monday Night Football isn't going anywhere soon, especially considering the millions of dollars Disney invested to retain the rights to the game for ABC during the off-season following a serious bid by NBC, which lost the AFC to CBS, to steal the games.

Still, it isn't the same and those fans keeping MNF paraphanelia might be wise to trade it off for another Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa autograph. It's still not too late.