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Ebersol leaving NBC Sports

Dick Ebersol, one of the most influential and colorful figures in sports television for the last four decades, abruptly quit as chairman of NBC Sports Group less than a year before he was to produce what many expected to be his crowning achievement -- the 2012 Olympic Games from London.

A tall and imposing presence, Ebersol rewrote the rules for television sports, paying huge broadcast fees for marquee events and pioneering a drama-heavy narrative version of the Olympics that often set ratings records but also rankled sports purists for its focus on sentimentality rather than the actual competition.

“He could get emotion out of rock,” said Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, who often competed against Ebersol for sports rights including the Olympics. “He tells a story better than anyone in television.”

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The hard-charging Ebersol, who temporarily dropped out of Yale University to work as an Olympic researcher, is part of a vanishing breed in the entertainment industry. The 63-year-old Connecticut native rose to power in an era of sports television when it was commanded by larger-than-life personalities who believed sports should be more spectacle than a mere profit-driver.

“I was never afraid, I never feared for a job, I never cared what I was paid,” Ebersol said of his approach to the business in a phone interview Thursday.

As a business executive, Ebersol invested billions of dollars in the belief that Americans would increasingly flock to high-profile, live sporting events -- and it was a gamble that largely paid off, with the notable exception of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, that lost $223 million.

For two decades, thanks to Ebersol, who produced the last eight Olympics, NBC had a lock on the international sporting event. The executive also was able to wrangle away top broadcasters and franchises from competitors including a bold deal with the NFL for “Sunday Night Football,” which ABC had tried to land.

“He is an extremely skilled negotiator, a tremendous administrator and a gifted producer -- that’s like a Triple Crown performance,” NBC Sports personality Bob Costas said.

Ebersol’s hasty departure -- he’s leaving at the end of June -- creates a huge void at the network and raises questions about the company’s commitment to big-ticket sporting events. Next month, NBC was expected to put in a bid for the next several Olympic Games.

Ebersol said he had been trying to reach a new contract with Comcast Corp. since the company took over at the end of January but grew frustrated at the slow pace of talks. On Wednesday, just two days after appearing on stage to promote NBC Sports to advertisers, Ebersol said, he told his boss -- NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke -- that he was leaving. Burke, said Ebersol, asked for one more day.

The offer on the table was not to Ebersol’s liking.

“They were still far apart from where I expected them to be, Ebersol said. “Steve and I smiled at each other, shook hands and that was that.”

Burke declined to comment on Ebersol’s departure.

The departing executive’s influence on television extended far beyond sports. He was the co-creator of the iconic NBC late-night show “Saturday Night Live” and at various times was heavily involved in news and entertainment programming. He also served as a confidant of several NBC titans, including Brandon Tartikoff, Bob Wright and Jeff Zucker.

Most recently, Ebersol played a key behind-the-scenes role in returning Jay Leno to late night after his prime-time show failed, a move that ultimately led to the departure of Leno’s anointed successor, Conan O’Brien, to the cable channel TBS.

“He had a lot of Hollywood in him,” said Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president and faculty member in Columbia University’s Sports Management Graduate Program.

But, say sources close to Burke, it was perhaps Ebersol’s ego and demand for control that alienated Comcast executives. Ebersol, from Comcast’s perspective, wasn’t conforming to the new corporate structure, which values teamwork over star personalities.

“Strong-willed and opinionated” is how Costas described his boss. “There were times that he and I disagreed about things, but we always worked it out.”

Asked if he thought there was a clash of cultures between him and Comcast, Ebersol said there wasn’t, but added, “It’s their company, they are entitled to feel that way.”

Ebersol has had something of a glamorous life away from sports. He’s married to actress Susan St. James, whom he met when she was hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 1981, and has homes in Connecticut, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Telluride, Colo. However, their lives took a tragic turn when their youngest son, Teddy, was killed in a plane crash in 2004, which left Ebersol severely injured as well.

Ebersol got his start in the television business as a researcher for the Olympics under the wing of legendary ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge. He first joined NBC in 1974 and was charged with creating a late-night entertainment program, and along with Lorne Michaels developed “Saturday Night Live.”

He left NBC in 1985 to become an independent producer and returned in 1989 as head of sports. Ebersol produced eight of the top 10 “most-watched” events in the U.S., a feat he pointed out Monday when he spoke to advertisers in New York. But he will be most remembered for his distinctive storytelling style and for making NBC the home of the Olympics.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Ebersol realized the old “us versus them” mentality that hit a high-water mark when the American hockey team defeated the Soviets at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 would no longer work in a post-Cold War world.

“The Olympics changed forever on that day,” Ebersol said. Without a generic bad guy, the athlete’s story became paramount. “You had to bring these people to life.”

Costas explained Ebersol’s contribution to sports broadcasting this way: “The vast majority of people don’t follow figure skating, skiing or track and field. In the Olympics you have to make viewers care about the athletes as people, the venues, the pageantry and the panorama.... If you didn’t do that, then the audience for the Olympics would be the same as the viewership for a first-rate weekend track and field meet that runs on any cable channel.”

Costas added that NBC Sports, under Ebersol, transformed NBA athletes like Michael Jordan into superstar personalities.

Ebersol was not without his missteps. He made the controversial decision to ease the beloved “Today” show co-anchor Jane Pauley out in favor of the younger, blonder Deborah Norville. The move incurred the wrath of much of America, and Norville was replaced by another up-and-comer whom viewers grew to love, Katie Couric.

On the sports front, Ebersol made an embarrassing attempt to create a rival to the National Football League. He teamed up with wrestling impresario Vince McMahon to create a springtime football league, the XFL, that flamed out after one season.

Whether NBC Sports under Comcast will be as ambitious as under Ebersol is a “valid question,” Costas acknowledged.

Comcast is seeking to downplay such concerns. In fact, Chief Executive Brian Roberts plans to fly to Switzerland as part of Comcast’s delegation to assure the International Olympics Committee that the company is interested. Rival bidders include News Corp.'s Fox and Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN.

“We will have to wait and see. Comcast has certainly made sports a big part of their business and the guys at the top are sports fans,” Costas said. “But they are businessmen too. “

Ebersol said he had no immediate professional plans and said he couldn’t imagine returning to another executive position.

“I’m going to take at least a year off,” he said. “Or maybe forever.”

joe.flint@latimes.com

meg.james@latimes.com


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