SBD/May 20, 2011/Media

Ebersol Resigns After NBC Universal Fails To Meet His Contract Demands

Ebersol says contract offer "wasn't as high as I wanted to go"
NBC Sports Group Chair Dick Ebersol "resigned abruptly on Thursday after negotiations on a four-year contract collapsed," according to a front-page piece by Sandomir & Carter of the N.Y. TIMES. Ebersol has been "best known for his work with the Olympics, and his departure could significantly change what is expected to be a vigorous battle for the television rights for the next two Games." Ebersol said, "If I wasn't going to produce them, I wasn't going to be part of the process." Ebersol "had been negotiating a contract extension" with NBC Universal President & CEO Steve Burke for months. But Ebersol last week "was sensing a deal might not be done." He said, "I went to see Mr. Burke [Wednesday], and I said I thought we were here, and it turns out we really aren’t, and I think it would be better if we split. He asked for the night to relook at things, and we met this morning, and we were too far apart.” A longtime NBC colleague said that Ebersol "had been unhappy with some aspects of how the negotiations with Mr. Burke had been handled." The colleague said that Ebersol "believed he had concluded a verbal agreement on the new contract." But the colleague said that when the agreement was put on paper, Ebersol "concluded the terms had been altered in ways he could not accept." Ebersol said, "They made me a very, very, by their terms and mine, a very healthy offer, but it wasn't as high as I wanted to go" (N.Y. TIMES, 5/20). In L.A., Flint & James note Ebersol is "leaving at the end of June." Sources close to Burke said that 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." Asked if he thought there was a clash of cultures between him and Comcast, Ebersol said that "there wasn't." But he added, "It's their company, they are entitled to feel that way" (L.A. TIMES, 5/20). The HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Marisa Guthrie cites sources as saying that Ebersol “became increasingly marginalized post-merger,” and a source said that Burke “had previously expressed frustration that ‘Dick is such a broadcast guy,’ suggesting that Ebersol's notions about presenting the Olympics -- not just the price tag -- did not sit well with the Comcast regime.” One source chalks up Ebersol's exit to "a fundamental disagreement over the approach to the [IOC]. And that's Dick's legacy” (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, 5/20).

NOT SEEING EYE TO EYE: Ebersol said that he "decided to leave because NBCUniversal refused to meet his demands for more money and because he was growing tired of his increased bureaucratic duties under the new management." The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Vascellaro & Schechner cited sources as saying that Ebersol and Burke "clashed both personally and over business." Sources added that Ebersol was "frustrated by his loss of autonomy." But Ebersol said that he had "retained autonomy to operate NBC Sports in 'all the things that matter to me.'" He added that his departure is "not related to 'programming or production or talent.'" He also said that a "personality clash was not at play." Ebersol: "There isn't anything here other than a difference in opinion on what I am worth." But Ebersol also acknowledged that NBCU "had adopted a Comcast culture with 'much more layered' financial oversight, and that there is sometimes 'debate' about financial questions." Ebersol: "For a guy who loves to sit in the control room, it was different" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 5/20). In N.Y., Claire Atkinson reports while Ebersol's nine-year contract "doesn't expire until the end of 2012," sources hinted that he "tried to wring more out of his boss -- figuring he had leverage ahead of the crucial Olympic negotiations -- and that Burke balked at his demands." There also were "signs that Ebersol and Burke disagreed when it came to spreading sports programming across NBCU's cable networks rather than concentrating it at the flagship NBC network" (N.Y. POST, 5/20). In Philadelphia, Bob Fernandez notes though Ebersol "seemed to emerge politically intact in the restructuring of NBCU when Comcast assumed control, there had been persistent speculation that he would chafe at Comcast's oversight" (PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 5/20). Ebersol "had given little, if any, public indication of a rift" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 5/20). Bloomberg TV's Michele Steele said, "Talk to media executives and you'll hear one theme over and over: The timing took everyone by surprise here" ("Inside Track," Bloomberg TV, 5/20). NBC's Bob Costas talked to Ebersol Thursday and said, "He sounded very much at peace with his decision" (L.A. DAILY NEWS, 5/20).

Lazarus will now be the top sports
executive at NBC Universal
WINDS OF CHANGE
: Mark Lazarus, who was brought in by Ebersol last December to oversee the company's cable sports assets, will replace Ebersol as NBC Sports Group Chair. As the former head of Turner Sports, Lazarus has extensive experience in marketing, ad sales, digital and programming of TV channels (THE DAILY). In L.A., Joe Flint noted that in Lazarus, Comcast will have a "much lower-profile individual in that role, although also one who has not had the same level of experience in producing major events such as the Olympics" (LATIMES.com, 5/19). MULTICHANNEL NEWS' Mike Reynolds wrote, "Olympic bidding aside, Lazarus and the NBC Sports Group has much work ahead of it, including the renaming of national cable service Versus, as well as the 10 regional sports networks currently sporting the Comcast SportsNet banner" (MULTICHANNEL.com, 5/19). YAHOO SPORTS' Jay Busbee wrote Ebersol's departure "adds uncertainty to the role of the Golf Channel in the NBC/Comcast mix, as well as NBC's plan to bid on PGA Tour tournaments and other events" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/19).

ONE OF A KIND
: In N.Y., Bob Raismann writes a "major personality has split the scene." Ebersol "wasn't just a producer and negotiator, he was a master communicator." He "knew how to work the room and all the people in it." Through his "words, and spin strategy, he could infuriate other network executives." Yet there "always seemed to be respect, albeit often begrudging." There "was also a certain wariness." Through the years you "never heard much about the other guys running network sports operations." They "were basically faceless." Even "his enemies were obsessed with him" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 5/20). In Houston, David Barron writes, "No figure in sports TV was more intimidating, and none was more encouraging or ingratiating if the moment were suitable" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 5/20). 3WIRESPORTS.com's Alan Abrahamson wrote, "The culture that Ebersol created at NBC Sports was everywhere NBC Sports was. He had one hard-and-fast rule: no jerks" (3WIRESPORTS.com, 5/19). USA TODAY's Michael Hiestand notes Ebersol "always tried to stay a step ahead." His "eye for on-air talent was visionary." He "grasped the inevitable merger of sports and entertainment before it became obvious." Hiestand: "What a run. You'll never see anything like it again" (USA TODAY, 5/20). In DC, Cindy Boren writes Ebersol was one of the "most powerful and enduring figures in sports television for decades" (WASHINGTON POST, 5/20). In Miami, Barry Jackson writes Ebersol was "one of the towering figures in TV sports" (MIAMI HERALD, 5/20). 

WHAT COMES NEXT? Ebersol said that he "would be open to new jobs, but only as a producer." He said, "I don't ever want to be an executive again" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 5/20). Ebersol added, "I'm going to take at least a year off. Or maybe forever" (L.A. TIMES, 5/20). THE WRAP’s Brent Lang writes: “Few within the television industry expect the most powerful name in sports broadcasting to ride off quietly into the sunset. … Will he move to rival CBS or Fox? Migrate to cable and the ESPN empire? Or use his fortune and name recognition to launch his own venture? With over 40 years of experience, Ebersol’s options seem vast.” Lang: “Some in the industry speculate that Rupert Murdoch might be inclined to bring Ebersol on board simply to dig the knife in Comcast’s side.” But Pilson Communications President Neal Pilson speculates, “My guess is Dick may very well create some new TV enterprise that could include sports, or it could bring him back to his entertainment experience” (THE WRAP, 5/20). ESPN's Michael Wilbon said, "Ebersol's 63 years old. Does he strike you as a 'sit around and do nothing' kind of guy? You think he's retired now? Because I don't" ("PTI," ESPN, 5/19).
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