The ultimate Olympic gold medalist has left the podium. Dick Ebersol resigned as head of NBC Sports on Thursday.
The whys and wherefores of whatever corporate politics at NBC/Comcast led to this will be discussed and dissected until the cows come home. If you are part of the Olympic movement, anywhere in the world, you don’t care as much about why as you do about what. It is simple. Your sugar daddy is gone.
Over the last two decades, Ebersol was to the Olympics what butter is to bread. He was so important to the movement they ought to insert the NBC Peacock in the middle of the five rings.
The success of the Games is a contribution of thousands. At the front of that line are two men: Peter Ueberroth, who changed the 1984 Olympics from a precarious venture to a financial bonanza, and Ebersol, who saw the value of the Games as both a patriotic and programming Valhalla and never winced at paying dearly for the rights to telecast them.
Ueberroth was a genius at showing that an Olympics can be run like a successful business. Ebersol was a genius at taking the model created by Roone Arledge and bringing it to new levels of masterful storytelling. If you watched Ebersol’s Olympics, which began in the Summer Games at Seoul in 1988 and the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, you were allowed, almost mandated, to get up close and personal with the athletes.
“He has brought a quality of leadership and broadcast excitement to the Olympic movement for two decades,” Ueberroth said. “What he has done has been a service to athletes globally.”
Big-time television executives, existing in a world that moves too fast to care and often eats its young, are not usually described as warm and fuzzy. Ebersol is an exception.
Tom Hammond, veteran NBC announcer here to do the Preakness, called Ebersol “super approachable.
“He was at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago,” Hammond said. “He saw that I had a new convertible and he stood around and talked to me about it for 10 minutes. He was like our buddy. Anytime you wanted to call, he’d take it.”
Bob Neumeier, an NBC reporter also here for the Preakness, has worked for Ebersol since 1991.
“Two years ago, at the Kentucky Oaks [the day before the Derby], I had a seizure,” Neumeier said. “The first person to visit me in the hospital the next morning, at 7 a.m., was Ebersol.”
Alan Abrahamson, a former Olympics writer for The Times who moved to NBC Universal as a columnist in 2006 and started to work for Ebersol, said Ebersol had a hiring policy he called the No Jerks Rule.
“Can you imagine that?” Abrahamson said. “No jerks? This is TV, for crying out loud.”
Abrahamson also said, “I don’t think anybody has had a bigger impact on the Olympics.”
That, of course, brings thoughts of future Olympics. Citius, Altius, Fortius, Ebersol-less.
Mike Moran, longtime spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee, said the timing couldn’t have been worse. NBC has the rights to telecast the 2012 London Olympics, but bidding for U.S. television rights for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, will take place at International Olympic Committee headquarters in Switzerland on June 6-7. It is also possible that a bidder could obtain the rights to the 2018 Winter Games and 2020 Summer Games, both sites still to be awarded.
U.S. television, thanks to Ebersol, has by far been the main benefactor for the IOC. The money is crazy, but to quote Abrahamson, it is TV, for crying out loud. For the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley, CBS paid $50,000. When the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game was played at Lake Placid in 1980, there was no live U.S. telecast.
For the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics, the most recent two, NBC paid $2.2 billion. If a bidder in June wants the next four games, it can have them for a cool $4 billion.
Now, the absence of Ebersol throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings. NBC/Comcast will bid, as will ABC/ESPN. Also, likely, Fox.
“This is a severe setback, really a blow to the Olympics,” Moran said. “Ebersol leveled the playing field. Now, it’s like trying to run the Indy 500 with two flat tires.”
Yes, ESPN could get the Olympics. Maybe it would have, anyway. Maybe the era of Ebersol’s Up-Close-and-Personal Olympics will be replaced by 100 meters, Around the Horn. Fox could win out. Maybe the next Bob Costas will be Bill O’Reilly.
Abrahamson, reporting from Lausanne, Switzerland, for his website, 3wiresports.com, said Comcast executives Brian Roberts and Steve Burke and longtime NBC sports executive Gary Zenkel scrambled to retain their advantage with the IOC with the news of Ebersol’s departure. At 10:20 a.m.PDT Thursday, they called IOC President Jacques Rogge to assure him that this had nothing to do with the Olympic bid.
For public consumption, Rogge took them at their word and released a statement that called the Ebersol situation “a purely internal issue and Dick took a decision and we have to respect that.”
One thing is clear. This has, at least for the moment, ended a longtime Olympic love affair for Ebersol that goes back to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when he and predecessor Arledge stepped outside to take a cigar break, only to realize later that they had been standing right next to the trash bins where the terrorists were hiding, waiting for their chance to invade the Israeli athletes’ rooms.
“He loved the Olympics voraciously,” Hammond said.
Now, the Olympics will miss him the same way.