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Published March 22, 2010
Most people know Neal Pilson as the former president of CBS Sports, where he earned a reputation as a dogged negotiator and strategic thinker during his 13-year tenure through the 1980s and early 1990s.
But it’s what Pilson did after being removed from that job — after he took early retirement at the age of 55 — that elevated his career to a new status and developed an industry that many would follow.
Literally the day after leaving Black Rock in June 1995, Pilson opened a sports consultancy that would change his image from a free-spending network executive to an industry consultant trying to convince other network executives to open their pockets. It’s a job that has helped Pilson rise to the top of his profession and established him as a consistent compass to the trends and vagaries of the sports media business.
Described in a 1990 Sports Illustrated profile as a “steady, abstemious, bespectacled 50-year-old with a Yale Law degree and a pharmacist’s name,” Pilson has spent the past 15 years convincing networks to part with billions of dollars.
“Neal has an unmatched record of leading a wide range of companies and leagues to successful media deals,” said NFL Network President and CEO Steve Bornstein. “He is the gold standard and one of the most influential executives in the media business.”
By his count, in the past five years alone, Pilson has helped close around $8 billion worth of TV deals. That includes the $5 billion he helped secure during NASCAR’s most recent TV deal, and it includes the $2 billion NBC paid the International Olympic Committee in its most recent deal.
“Even a small percentage of $1 billion is a lot of money,” Pilson said with a grin from a New York conference room, just blocks from the CBS offices where he first made his name in sports. “But those deals are hard to come by.”
For the last 15 years, Pilson has worked on his own, with his wife of nearly 48 years, Frieda, helping out in Chappaqua, N.Y. He has assembled a blue-chip client roster that includes NASCAR and the Kentucky Derby, as well as both the defunct AFL and the recently relaunched version of the indoor football league. Through the years, he has featured clients such as the Rose Bowl and the World Series of Poker, along with the IOC.
But the early days of Pilson Communications — the name he gave his business — were not nearly as lucrative, his client list wasn’t nearly as long, and his confidence, which rarely wavers, was not nearly as high.
Pilson had not left CBS willingly. A year before he departed, Pilson’s bosses stripped him of his title as president of CBS Sports, deciding that he was the one who should take the fall for losing the NFL’s NFC package to Fox in 1994 and overseeing a money-losing contract with Major League Baseball.
He remained with CBS for another year as a senior vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group before eventually taking early retirement.
“Over that year, I let as many people know as I could that I’d be opening a consultancy business,” Pilson said. “At the time, I described myself as the senior surviving executive in, perhaps, all of television, in terms of having the highest visibility post for the longest period of time at the oldest age.”
The day after officially leaving CBS, when he opened his own shop, he had exactly one client: NASCAR legend Bill France Jr.
Pilson and France had grown close over the years. Thanks to Pilson, CBS became the first network to air live flag-to-flag coverage of a NASCAR race in 1979, with the Daytona 500. The two also negotiated several rights deals to keep the series on CBS.
Pilson recalled that when he told France he was leaving CBS, France quickly replied, “Great. I’m going to hire you as my consultant, and I want to go back into CBS and get all the money that you’ve been holding out on me over the last 15 or 20 years.”
Three months after launching his business, Pilson found himself back inside CBS’s offices negotiating a TV deal on behalf of NASCAR. Pilson opened the negotiations by pointing his finger at the sports division’s new president, Dave Kenin, and saying, tongue partially in cheek, “Dave, CBS has been screwing my client for 20 years and it has got to stop now.”
“We negotiated a very good deal with CBS,” Pilson recalled, 15 years later, just a couple of blocks from where that meeting took place. “That was my turning of the corner, from sitting on one side of the table to sitting on the other side.”
NASCAR was Pilson’s only client for the first few months in 1995, until Arena Football League Commissioner Jim Drucker hired Pilson to figure out what to do with the AFL’s media rights. Pilson had never heard of the AFL at the time, but he saw potential in the business and took them on as a client.
NASCAR remains a client of Pilson’s to this day. The AFL stuck with Pilson until it folded last year; its new iteration also hired Pilson as a consultant.
“He wasn’t just looking to get a paycheck. He was investing in the full spectrum of our organization,” said David Baker, the former AFL commissioner who replaced Drucker in 1996. “I love that about Neal.”
Pilson attributes his company’s success to the relationships he’s forged during his career. His work on renewing a Rose Bowl deal with ABC in 2004 provides a typical example.
“I had dealt with Neal many times, both when he was with CBS and afterwards,” said Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. “We were looking for guidance and expertise and were confident Neal would provide that.”
Delany credits Pilson’s guidance for helping the Rose Bowl secure a $300 million rights fee from ABC, though Pilson is convinced he could have worked out a bigger payday.
One of the Rose Bowl executives told Pilson not to push for a higher rights fee because he liked George Bodenheimer, who was leading ESPN’s negotiation, and didn’t want to disappoint him.
“Afterwards, I pulled George aside and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but in the final analysis, my client didn’t want you to be disappointed,” Pilson said.
True to Pilson’s style, he respected the client’s wishes, knowing that there’s more to gain from maintaining that relationship than pushing for extra money. That focus on relationships basically personifies how Pilson Communications grew to become such a force in the industry today.
“I’m committed to this business as long as I can pick up my BlackBerry,” Pilson said. “I’ve got no other hobbies. … I really only work on things that I can affect. I have focused on them for the last 40 years. In a way, it’s a shame. Perhaps I should be spending more time getting somebody elected or changing the climate, but I leave that to other people. I have my priorities, and that’s how I live my life.”