Is Michaels Having Second Thoughts?
By RICHARD SANDOMIR
Published: January 24, 2006
In July, Al Michaels's future looked set: he would follow "Monday Night Football" to ESPN from ABC in a deal that lasts through 2013, thereby sticking with the series whose very name still sets his spine to tingling.
But ever since November, there have been waves of speculative chatter that he wanted to get out of the contract and restart talks with NBC, whose offer he rejected. From his vacation yesterday, Michaels said nothing about his future, but through an ABC Sports spokesman, he said the "Monday Night" crew had "made a pact that no one would talk about next year."
The next time we see and hear Michaels will be Feb. 5 at Super Bowl XL, ABC's farewell to the N.F.L. Michaels will be there beside John Madden, who is headed to NBC and its new Sunday night football broadcasts. Fred Gaudelli will produce the game and Drew Esocoff will direct it, then they will follow Madden to NBC.
So why didn't Michaels join NBC when he had the first chance? Why would he break up with Madden, his best "Monday Night" partner, to join ESPN, which will not carry postseason games? Why would someone as savvy as Michaels surrender the chance to call Super Bowls until he is at least 69?
Michaels said last July that he agreed to the ESPN deal because he remained tantalized by the "Monday Night Football" name and that he was not following it from ABC for financial reasons. ESPN is paying him $4 million, about $1 million more than the deal he rejected from NBC.
At the time, he knew that Madden was leaving and that he would be working with Joe Theismann at ESPN. But he did not know that Gaudelli and Esocoff would also leave, meaning his comfort zone was departing, as a unit, without him.
Whatever second thoughts Michaels has may be tied to mourning the end of "Monday Night" at the downsized ABC Sports while still being emotionally attached to the 36-year-old series. He may also be thinking about a busier existence at ESPN, which likes to use its game announcers on its studio programs as promotional devices.
Michaels would be part of ESPN's plan to turn "Monday Night Football" from a stand-alone broadcast network program into a daylong hoo-ha on its TV and radio networks, Web site and new cellphone service, ESPN Mobile.
George Bodenheimer, the president of ESPN and ABC Sports, offered a declarative, if not completely definitive, comment on Michaels last week.
"Al has a contract, and yes, it is signed," he said by telephone, "and I fully expect him to honor his agreement with us."
What is unknown is whether, or how doggedly, Michaels or his lawyers will lobby to leave the Walt Disney Company, owner of ESPN, which also pays him $2 million annually to be ABC's No. 1 N.B.A. announcer on a contract that expires after this season.
If Michaels is persistent enough with Bodenheimer and his longtime friend Bob Iger, Disney's chairman, he may succeed in leaving. Why hold an unhappy announcer to a contract with a network without Super Bowls or the late-season flexible schedule that ABC coveted so much?
ESPN could easily insert Mike Tirico, one of its most versatile and familiar voices, into the "Monday Night" slot.
But any attempt to escape Disney carries risk: if Michaels leaves ESPN, will he do so in time to reunite at NBC with Madden, Gaudelli and Esocoff?
NBC isn't twiddling teeny pigskins waiting for Michaels. For the past few months, NBC has been grooming Cris Collinsworth - who was to be its lead N.F.L. studio analyst, working with Bob Costas - as its play-by-play announcer. He has called several rehearsal games at stadiums - none of them televised - and another the weekend before last with Madden at Madden's Pleasanton, Calif., production facility, which was overseen by **** Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports.
Ebersol has orchestrated Collinsworth's play-by-play tutorial. One senses that he wanted Michaels, but didn't need him and opted to audition Collinsworth. But after NBC's voluntary eight-year exile from the N.F.L., Ebersol doubtlessly wants to return at full throttle, which he would do by bringing Madden and Michaels together. Interesting as a Madden-Collinsworth pairing may be, it would take time to jell.
Ebersol has shown no inclination to accelerate his decision-making, and he departed yesterday for Turin, Italy, to produce the Winter Olympics. He can wait until the early summer to see how the Michaels situation unfolds. In this, his model is his mentor, Roone Arledge, who, when he ran ABC Sports, delayed decisions until events took their course, usually to his satisfaction.
And then - who knows? - maybe he will choose Costas.