SBJ/May 23-29, 2011/Media

The swift, sudden exit of Dick Ebersol

NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke and Dick Ebersol were in the middle of a contentious meeting at 30 Rock last Wednesday.

SHANA WITTENWYLER
Ebersol’s departure from NBC Sports ended an era that spanned more than two decades.
The two high-powered executives were negotiating a new contract for Ebersol, but there were several sticking points, one of which dealt with salary.

The two remained far apart as the meeting ended. Ebersol told Burke that he would resign the next morning unless they could reach an agreement.

Burke and Ebersol met the following morning, but they were no closer to agreeing on a new deal. As he promised, Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports Group, extended his resignation, and Burke accepted it.

Ebersol left the Thursday meeting and told his staff the shocking news. After leading NBC Sports since 1989, he was leaving 30 Rock. By all accounts, staffers were floored. None of them expected Ebersol to leave before the 2012 Games in London.

Before Ebersol gathered the nearly 70 staffers, some Olympic producers who had earlier been told the news were seen crying. Ebersol’s longtime assistant also was seen in tears.  

Ebersol’s message to the staffers, delivered just before noon, talked about how he “loved being a part of your life.” Once news of the resignation got out, some NBC Sports staffers became emotional, and one group of Olympic producers based in Stamford, Conn., immediately left work and went to a bar.

Ebersol’s divorce from NBC Sports last week marked the end of an era that spanned more than two decades at the broadcast network.

The speed of his departure was surprising. Even early Thursday, senior NBC Sports executives had no clue that the legendary TV executive had threatened to leave.

But it was the timing of Ebersol’s resignation — less than three weeks before the International Olympic Committee will accept bids for the 2014 and 2016 Games — that sent shock waves through the sports industry.

NBC's Current Rights Deals

Property Length Total value Final season of contract
Wimbledon 4 years $52 million 2011
Olympics 2010 Winter, 2012 Summer Games $2 billion 2012
PGA Tour 6 years $2.95 billion* 2012
NFL 8 years $4.82 billion 2013
U.S. Open 9 years NA 2014
U.S. Figure Skating 6 years NA 2014
Notre Dame Football 5 years $50 million 2015
Kentucky Derby 5 years NA 2015
Preakness Stakes 5 years NA 2015
Belmont Stakes 5 years NA 2015
NHL 10 years $2 billion 2021

NA: Not available
* Part of a shared deal with other networks.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research

Ebersol's departure from NBC Sports ended an era that spanned more than two decades.

Moments after Ebersol’s resignation became public last Thursday, ESPN and Fox executives went into a scramble mode. Meetings were called, as teams of executives from both companies spent hours in meetings poring over their Olympic bids. With Ebersol no longer fronting NBC’s bid for the Olympic Games, executives from both networks believed their chances to win the 2014 and 2016 rights became better, and they looked to retool their bids. ESPN and Fox executives privately believe NBC’s Olympic bid without Ebersol will be much lower than they originally expected. Comcast sources say they still plan to be a competitive bidder.

“People will be taking a new look at their numbers,” said former Turner Sports President Harvey Schiller. “It’s probably time for other networks like Turner and CBS to take a new look at bidding. Effectively, everything is equal. Because of Dick’s relationships, everyone thought NBC had some special insights. It’s in the best interest of the IOC to make some telephone calls.”

News of Ebersol’s resignation came as a shock to IOC President Jacques Rogge, according to well-placed sources. U.S. Olympic Committee President Scott Blackmun also was said to be surprised by the announcement, sources say.

Executives at the major sports leagues were all caught off guard. Popular convention suggested that Ebersol might step down after the 2012 Games in London. Nobody thought he’d leave NBC before then.

While accepting a Sports Business Award for League of the Year on Wednesday night, NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins cited Ebersol’s production and marketing acumen as one of the reasons he was convinced his league would continue to grow. “I think Dick Ebersol and [NBC Sports and Versus executive producer] Sam Flood have a great vision for the sport,” Collins said. “The base is there. Events like the Winter Classic really help.”

Longtime media executive Mark Lazarus will take over as chairman of the NBC Sports Group. The former head of Turner Sports, Lazarus is well-liked, well-regarded and well-connected in the sports media world. And, most importantly, he understands the cable business, and industry insiders say he is well-positioned to expand channels like Versus and Golf Channel.

Reports of friction between Ebersol and Comcast brass consistently have leaked out in the four months since Comcast officially took over NBC and Ebersol was picked to run the NBC Sports Group.

Ebersol raised some eyebrows early on when he fired Versus executives such as president Jamie Davis, coordinating producer Mike Baker and executive producer Leon Schweir days after assuming control of the network.

Ebersol hinted at some of that friction during a press conference last month announcing the NHL deal. When asked to compare corporate bosses General Electric and Comcast, Ebersol said GE “so often believed in us and put enormous amounts of money out there.”

But when he spoke of Comcast, Ebersol said: “They are looking to make sure that every aspect has been evaluated, that we’re going to make money, and I don’t ever believe I’m ever going to be let out of the building unless we can show them we’re going to make money.”

Staff writers Tripp Mickle and Terry Lefton contributed to this report.

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