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Ryder Deal Redux

ESPN has the rights to opening Ryder Cup matches -- a significant re-entry into the sport for the network that once had the PGA Tour

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February 22, 2008

It's a sure sign of spring when ESPN sends a flotilla of staffers to Augusta National GC in the middle of winter. Come April the cable giant will televise Thursday's and Friday's rounds of the Masters, preceded by another first -- the Wednesday Par 3 event, previously unseen on live television. This is landmark stuff that obviously materialized at the behest of, and with the blessing of, the club that monitors every facet of the Masters. But beyond that, it represents yet another change in golf's TV landscape. And to think one reason for this seismic shift is none other than Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, right?

"No, no, you're confused," said Dick Ebersol. "Oswald had nothing to do with the Masters. Oswald is the Ryder Cup rabbit." Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, should know, for he was instrumental in one of those highfalutin corporate transactions that will afford ESPN a presence at the biennial matches between the United States and Europe. Starting this September, and extending until 2014, ESPN has the rights to Friday's opening Ryder Cup matches -- a significant re-entry into the sport for a network that once had the PGA Tour, then plunged into Arena Football, thereby seemingly indicating a certain apathy toward golf.

"No, I don't think it was that," said Ebersol, sending more corrective signals from his desk at 30 Rock in New York City. "The Ryder Cup is the closest thing to the Olympics, as far as patriotism and such. So it was smart strategy by ESPN when we started talking. What surprised me was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. I had never heard of him." To make a long negotiation short, NBC returned to the pro football business in 2006 with the Sunday night package. Ebersol quickly signed John Madden, superstar analyst via ABC, which had bequeathed its Monday night games to ESPN, which is also under the Disney company umbrella. But Ebersol wanted Madden's play-by- play sidekick to be superstar Al (Do You Believe In Miracles?) Michaels, who had signed on for the Monday night ESPN gig without Madden. Until he, Michaels, had second thoughts.

Oswald is 80, old for a rabbit, and Michaels is 62, so NBC certainly got younger with the trade.

"So, that's how it began," Ebersol recalled. "They had Al. We had the Ryder Cup. And Oswald." NBC in 2004 merged with Universal, which produced Oswald cartoons for Walt Disney during the 1920s. But when Disney moved to California, he left Oswald behind. Disney, the company attached to ABC/ESPN, retained all cartoon characters invented by Disney, the man, except one. "What Walt Disney did when he went off on his own was reinvent Oswald as Mickey Mouse," Ebersol explained. "One's a rabbit, but they look almost the same. Here, I have a picture in my office. Let me see. [Pause]. Except for the ears and gloves, not much difference."

Rest assured, ESPN paid millions to NBC for a slice of the Ryder Cup. Oswald was not going to be a deal-breaker. But it made sense. Oswald is 80, old for a rabbit, and Michaels is 62, so NBC certainly got younger with the trade. Also, Oswald's next words will be his -- or its -- first. In his youth, cartoons weren't talkies. Michaels, meanwhile, is one of the most popular voices for all sports, including golf, albeit briefly. When ABC tried prime-time specials a few years ago, Michaels was host for four of them. (Who can forget "Battle of the Bridges" under the lights?) Before playing Duval Duval in one of those instant classics, Tiger Woods was introduced to Michaels. They talked about their golf games. "He wound up telling me, 'You play more than I do,' " Michaels was saying from his home in Los Angeles. "I don't know if that's good or bad, but I love it. I'm hooked."

Which is odd, because Michaels did not become addicted until his mid-40s. He began his career doing minor-league baseball in Hawaii, for goodness sakes, and had hundreds of free afternoons after he reached the big time with the Cincinnati Reds. But not until Terry Jastrow, a pal from the TV industry, suggested membership at Bel-Air CC did Michaels succumb. When contacted last week, he was about out the door for yet another round, after which he would attend the Northern Trust Open. "I'm the new president of the Joe Ogilvie Fan Club," Michaels said. "We were partners in the AT&T at Pebble Beach and had more fun than human beings should be allowed to have. Plus Justin Leonard was in our foursome with [CBS boss] Les Moonves. I watched Joe and Justin. Their concentration. Their geometry. Unbelievable."

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