SBJ/May 30 - June 6, 2011/Opinion

The fascinating tenure of NBC’s Dick Ebersol

Dick Ebersol was such a dominating figure in the sports business over the last 22 years that it’s odd to even think of him out of the picture. He leaves a huge void. He has served as a leading, imposing, inspirational and intimidating executive and a key trendsetter in sports business.

You simply had to listen to what he said, watch his storytelling and appreciate the loyalty he inspired among his colleagues. He will deservedly go down as one of the most influential and important sports executives of the modern era.

But his career is fascinating for its contradictions. Over the years, Ebersol was a maddeningly inconsistent voice and his larger-than-life presence drew the ire of competitors and colleagues alike. There was the Ebersol who was deemed a visionary for walking away from the NFL in 1998 while bemoaning the rising cost of sports rights. We all remember this quote: “The word aggressive has now been replaced by the word reckless. … We’re not in the business of putting the livelihood of our employees in jeopardy.” But then there was the Ebersol who paid whatever it took to reclaim the NFL in ’06, and eventually he conceded that NBC lost money televising the Vancouver Winter Games.

Ebersol called out sponsors who dared to take on the Olympic movement, telling John Hancock’s David D’Alessandro to “shut up” in his criticism of the bid process in 1999. He wouldn’t hold back in calling out the U.S. Olympic Committee if he felt it was not fully representing NBC’s Olympic interests, saying in 2009 that the USOC was “a rudderless ship.” At times, it appeared Ebersol had as much loyalty to the Olympic rings as he did to NBC. And of course, he launched an in-your-face football league in a partnership that was roundly questioned, and it failed miserably.

It was Ebersol’s inconsistency, though, that made him so fascinating. Personally, I like Dick. I have followed him intently over the years, and he is one of the most charming executives I’ve ever met. But, like many we cover in this business, he was sensitive to the written word. Just writing that gives me pause — I’m sure he’s going to hate it. But it’s true. He would shut off people for a sentence in a story or a headline that he felt unfair. Trust me.

The fit with Comcast, obviously, was never right. Perhaps, in retrospect, we should not be surprised this divorce happened so quickly. Ebersol was a throwback, a connection to a much different era of television, and the DNA of the two companies were too different. One should easily understand how Ebersol, who had so much power and autonomy for so long, would chafe at working for any new boss, let alone one where the broadcast and cable backgrounds were vastly different.

Ebersol exits at the end of June, and it’s still hard to visualize the Peacock’s sports division without his imposing presence. The culture at 30 Rock will change. It already has, according to several insiders. The Olympics will never be the same. It is, quite simply, the end of an era. Ebersol has been noncommittal about his next move — maybe a year off, never an executive again, maybe it’s Ebersol Inc. But we know the industry is better off with his contributions and voice. I hope he’s not out of the picture for long.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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