How ESPN swapped Al Michaels for a cartoon rabbit

Nearly 80 years after Walt Disney first created the precursor to Mickey Mouse, Oswald came home. Mark Matcho for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 11 Fight For Perfection Issue. Subscribe today!

Excerpted from the book Every Town is a Sports Town. Copyright 2015 by George Bodenheimer. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. Bodenheimer's royalties will go to the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

IT WAS A BIG deal when ESPN acquired the rights to Monday Night Football in 2005. Because MNF was history's longest-running prime-time series, the conservative approach would have been to leave the program alone. But our production team wanted to put our stamp on it. So for the first time, MNF was covered on all media across all ESPN platforms, and the television audience soared to the point where our Week 7 regular-season broadcast between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys (Oct. 23, 2006) set the record for the largest audience in the history of cable television at the time.

Problem was, when we gained Monday Night Football but lost Sunday Night Football, all of a sudden we had two very gifted talent and production teams but only one game to telecast each week. So which team was going to do the new MNF telecast? Do we choose Sunday's Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann, director Chip Dean and producer Jay Rothman? Or do we go with MNF's John Madden, Al Michaels, director Drew Esocoff and producer Fred Gaudelli, or some combination of both?

From the outset, I placed personal phone calls to everybody involved to explain that we were thinking through our options. Unfortunately, several people were very unhappy, especially John Madden, whose contract happened to be up. I later learned that within a day or two of NBC acquiring the NFL rights to televise Sunday Night Football, the entire ABC team was being recruited over to NBC. Madden signed with NBC right away, even though I wrote him a long letter to try to persuade him to stay with us. It didn't work, but I was proud of our efforts to keep him. For the MNF production team, we chose Rothman and Dean, and while we tried to retain Esocoff and Gaudelli with other assignments, they followed Madden over to NBC. Then, at the 2006 Super Bowl, a colleague informed me that Al Michaels wanted to get out of his ABC contract so he could join Madden on the Sunday night team. If true, this was a big development, as Al had been with ABC for 30 years. Sure enough, when we spoke after the game, he told me it was true.

The first thing I did was call Disney CEO Bob Iger to give him the news. A couple of days later, Iger called me back.

"George," he said, "I'd be willing to let Al Michaels go if you can get us the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from NBC."

After a slight pause, I responded, "Who or what is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?"

"Well, it goes back to the very beginning of Walt Disney's career," Iger explained. "Oswald is a revered figure at Disney, and I'd like to get him back."

My next phone call was to my counterpart at NBC, Dick Ebersol. I opened the conversation by saying, "I'm willing to talk to you about letting Al go to NBC, but I gotta have Oswald the Lucky Rabbit back."


"Yeah, you heard me right. I gotta have Oswald the Lucky Rabbit back."

"Who or what is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?"

"Well, here's what I know. You'll have to research it on your end."

It turns out that Oswald was a precursor to Mickey Mouse, designed personally by Walt Disney for Universal Pictures back in the 1920s -- and Bob Iger knew it was important to the Disney family. Within a week, Ebersol had run the traps at NBC's sister company, Universal, received approval, and the deal was worked out.

So nearly 80 years after Walt Disney first created the precursor to Mickey Mouse, Oswald was back home where he belonged. At company headquarters in Burbank, California, they celebrated with an "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Day," complete with a parade, balloons, free lunches and buttons. It was truly a big deal for The Walt Disney Co. And that's how Al Michaels was traded to NBC for a cartoon character.