Trades are a fact of life in professional sports; players are shipped from one team to another regularly. But trades aren’t limited to just players. In February of 2012, the Boston Red Sox received a player from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for allowing their former general manager, Theo Epstein, to take that role with the Chicago team. In 2002, Seattle Mariners manager Lou Pinella left the Pacific Northwest to manage the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; the Rays sent back outfielder Randy Winn to complete what was, in some sense, a trade. In early 2006, the Kansas City Chiefs wanted Herm Edwards to become their head coach, but Edwards was under contract as the head coach of the New York Jets. The Chiefs sent the Jets a fourth round draft pick and got their coach.
None of those are strange compared to the deal involving Al Michaels.
In 1977, Al Michaels joined ABC as an anchor for its sports broadcasts, originally calling some baseball games as a back-up play-by-play man. He’d be at ABC for nearly three decades and called many well-known games during his tenure there. He was the voice of many World Series and, of course, the “Miracle on Ice” game in the 1980 Olympics, in which he famously declared, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” as the United States beat the heavily favored Soviet Union squad en route to a gold medal. But his biggest role as a sportscaster was anchoring the Monday Night Football (MNF) broadcast lineup, a role he began in 1986 and continued into the 21st century.
But in 2005 — just two years after Michaels signed a long term contract extension with ABC — the network announced that MNF was going to be aired on ESPN. Both ABC and ESPN are owned by Disney, and Michaels was going to go to ESPN along with the program. But his co-host, John Madden, decided to go to a competitor, NBC, which was taking over the Sunday Night Football broadcasts. Madden made the switch in part because the Sunday Night Football games were almost certainly going to feature the week’s premiere matchups — an honor which previously went to MNF. And it was widely rumored that Michaels wanted to join Madden at NBC. But his contract did not allow for it.
So ABC and NBC struck a deal. ABC would let Michaels out of his contract so that he could sign one with NBC and continue anchoring play-by-play for the NFL’s game of the week. In exchange, according to ESPN, NBC gave ABC the rights to Ryder Cup matches, Olympic highlights, and ownership of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the cartoon seen above. Oswald was a creation of Walt Disney, one which Mr. Disney made while under contract with Universal Studios. Mr. Disney did not read the contract carefully, and Oswalt became the property of Universal. (Mr. Disney created an Oswald-like character to get around liability issues — that character, of course, is Mickey Mouse.)
In the end, it was a win-win: Disney (the company) reclaimed its founder’s work, now not worth very much beyond its sentimental value. Michaels went back to calling football games — and held the unique claim to being the one man traded for a cartoon.
From the Archives: Numbers Racket: Another thing which is traded in the world of pro sports? Uniform numbers.
Related: “Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” on DVD, originally from 1927. 4.5 stars on 30 reviews.