December 6, 2023

Analysis: A Lost Chance at Redemption for Ebersol

It was a characteristic gesture. Ebersol exuded confidence at NBC Sports. He had been a star executive at NBC for almost 40 years; a masterful press agent for NBC and for himself; a story-telling executive who loved to produce big events; and the production monarch of the Olympic control room.

So in the late spring air of Lausanne, Switzerland, it was not surprising to see him puff to a victory not yet declared, but one that he had a strong hunch that he had won. “We came to play,” he said.

And when NBC did win, it was by an overwhelming margin: NBC had bid $2.2 billion; Fox, $1.3 billion; and ESPN’s offer had been to share advertising revenue with the Olympic committee. In defeat, Fox and ESPN executives cited their fiscal prudence; in triumph, Ebersol said the bid was not wild at all, but based on “conservative figures” and a knowledge of television economics that his competitors lacked.

He was wrong. He overbid dramatically, with the backing of NBC’s parent at the time, General Electric, and the recession hurt advertising. The 2010 Vancouver Winter Games lost $223 million, astonishing for a 17-day event. Next year’s London Summer Games, which cost a record Olympic rights fee of $1.18 billion, are expected to lose at least as much, and Comcast, NBC Universal’s new owner, will have to absorb it.

Ebersol will not get a chance to redeem himself or lead NBC back to Lausanne on June 6 to the negotiation for the 2014 and ’16 Olympics. He resigned on Thursday, losing a power play with Stephen B. Burke, his boss since earlier this year when Comcast took control of NBC Universal.

Comcast named Mark Lazarus as Ebersol’s successor as the chairman of the NBC Sports Group — an exchange of an above-the-title executive star (notice the size of the letters of Ebersol’s name in the credits for “Sunday Night Football”) for a low-key, accomplished executive from the business side of cable.

Instead of Ebersol playing the Olympic maestro in presenting NBC’s plan to the I.O.C. next month, it will be his protégé, Gary Zenkel, who disdains the public profile that Ebersol embraced.

NBC will face ESPN and Fox in what could be a fascinating game of financial chicken with the I.O.C. All are preaching financial sanity publicly and privately. Burke recently said: “We’re here to be disciplined. Our job is to increase value.” Sochi, Russia, the site of the 2014 Winter Games, is considered by all three media companies to be worth much less than Vancouver, which cost NBC a rights fee of $820 million.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the 2016 Summer Games will be held, is an exotic locale, and the first Olympics in South America. It is in a time zone well situated to show the majority of events live. But will any network operating rationally bid more than the $1.18 billion that NBC is paying for London?

The I.O.C. has delayed the auction to let the economy recover from the recession.

But in that time, NBC, its best friend in television, merged with Comcast, and Ebersol, a recipient of the I.O.C.’s Olympic Order medal and its closest ally at NBC, is gone. And Comcast — a cable company and programmer — does not have the industrial assets like those that compelled G.E. to buy an Olympic sponsorship for about $200 million to sweeten the oversized Vancouver-London bid; that sponsorship led to hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts around the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. The Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN, is considering a sponsorship, Sports Business Journal has reported.

Ebersol’s departure was not altogether surprising, but the timing was. He was expected to lead the bidding in Lausanne and oversee all the production in London. He has a deep bench to replace him in the London control room. But while Comcast viewed him as an executive who had to learn its ways, G.E. treated him like show-business talent, as it had also treated Lorne Michaels, the producer of “Saturday Night Live.”

Ebersol was admired, followed and sometimes feared within NBC. He built a core group of loyal executives and producers. Comcast had no such loyalty to him and was unwilling or unprepared to accept his penchant for behaving like a corporate king with the sort of freewheeling portfolio he had had under G.E., where he advised on decisions in news, late night and entertainment. Last year, he famously leaped to the defense of Jay Leno, whom NBC returned to his previous role as the host of “The Tonight Show,” replacing Conan O’Brien. Ebersol said, “What this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan.”

A person who has observed Ebersol’s interactions the last few months, but was not authorized to speak publicly, said he could be dismissive, difficult, meddlesome and patronizing, and acted as if he deserved to be treated in a special way. In a statement, Ebersol said: “There were no meaningful clashes whatsoever between me and any Comcast executive. I’m not interested in responding to fiction. I’ve moved on.”

Ebersol could not have predicted in 2003 how his NBC career would end. But as he basked in winning the rights to the 2010 and ’12 Olympics, he looked ahead and said, “This will be my last Olympic negotiation.”

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