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Peacock Power
Sally Jenkins
December 25, 1995
Talk about smoking the competition: With the 1996 Atlanta Games already in hand, Dick Ebersol of NBC Sports has grabbed five more Olympics—in the years 2000 to 2008
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December 25, 1995

Peacock Power

Talk about smoking the competition: With the 1996 Atlanta Games already in hand, Dick Ebersol of NBC Sports has grabbed five more Olympics—in the years 2000 to 2008

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Swifter, Higher, Richer

Summer

Millions

Winter

Millions

1980

Moscow* NBC

99

Lake Placid ABC

10

1984

Los Angeles ABC

220

Sarajevo ABC

90

1988

Seoul NBC

300

Calgary ABC

300

1992

Barcelona NBC

400

Albertville CBS

220

1996

Atlanta A NBC

470

Lillehammer CBS

300

2000

Sydney NBC

710

Nagano CBS

370

2004

??? NBC

790

Salt Lake City NBC

520

2008

??? NBC

880

???NBC

605

*NBC did not televise the Moscow Olympics because of the U.S.-led boycott of the Games.

Bob Costas calls Dick Ebersol "the czar of my universe." In his role as president of NBC Sports—and sportscaster Costas's boss—Ebersol makes deals of exquisite timing worth hundreds of millions of dollars and then celebrates them over Dewar's on the rocks in a back booth at Nanni Il Valletto, a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, from which he nods cordially at other czars of other universes. One recent evening Ebersol entered Nanni's, an unobtrusive little gem with sumptuous banquettes, to find ABC News president Roone Arledge in one corner and media magnate John Kluge in another. Arledge gestured Ebersol over. "You've been cleaning some clocks lately," Arledge said.

Ebersol accepted the compliment with as much modesty as he could summon, which wasn't a lot. Ebersol was still exulting in the unprecedented double-fisted grab he had made on NBC's behalf in August, when he secured the U.S. television rights to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with a stunning preemptive bid of $1.25 billion. Ebersol had pulled off his masterstroke with both secrecy and flair. What Arledge didn't know as they chatted, and what Ebersol with his usual sangfroid gave not a hint of before sitting down to his sole meunière, was that he was about to dwarf that deal with an even bigger one. In fact, Ebersol had taken a call from the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Juan Antonio Samaranch, right before dinner. Now he didn't just have two Olympics. He had three more.

A week later, on Dec. 12, the announcement came: Ebersol and NBC had consummated the richest, boldest, riskiest rights acquisition in television history by securing the rights to the 2004, 2006 and 2008 Olympics for the grand sum of $2.3 billion. The other big over-the-air networks, ABC, CBS and Fox, never got in the game (box, page 60). Ebersol and his team had made some of the most opportunistic businessmen in the world, from Disney's Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz, whose acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC is pending, to Rupert Murdoch at Fox, look as though their pants had just dropped around their ankles.

The two NBC deals continued the escalation of fees for U.S. Olympic TV rights (chart, this page). In addition to $705 million for Sydney and $545 million for Salt Lake, Ebersol's network has agreed to pay $793 million for the 2004 Summer Games, $613 million for the 2006 Winter Games and $894 million for the 2008 Summer Games. With its combined $3.55 billion commitment, NBC has locked up the Olympics for the next generation. With the '96 Summer Games also on NBC, the network will carry six of the next seven Olympics; only the '98 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, which will be on CBS, break NBC's streak.

The implications for the other networks are potentially devastating from a programming standpoint because Ebersol has now all but cornered the market on the premier sports events. In 1996 the Super Bowl, the baseball All-Star Game, the NBA Finals as well as the Atlanta Olympics will all be on NBC, as will be the U.S. Open golf tournament, Wimbledon, the French Open and the Breeders' Cup. Never before will so many of sports' top events have been gathered in one place. NBC's murderers' row of events will leave the competition little more than an NCAA basketball tournament here (CBS) or a British Open there (ABC). In '96 Fox will have to be content with the World Series and splitting the Stanley Cup playoffs and finals with ESPN. Even Arledge, the man who virtually invented sports television, who made the Olympics a blue-chip event in the '60s and who hired Ebersol when Ebersol was a 19-year-old Yalie, is floored. "He's lapped the field," Arledge says.

How has Ebersol done it? In part by being utterly suave. In the last several months it has become apparent that Ebersol, 48, makes deals not just of substance but of unmistakable style. He sports a semipermanent Telluride ski tan as he walks and talks with a rhythm of easy success, as befits the product of a well-to-do Connecticut family and Yale. "I like to win, I like to have fun, and I don't like to wear a coat and tie," Ebersol says.

Ebersol's colleagues and competitors have learned that beneath the casual attire and attitude is a thoroughly rapacious businessman. And a visionary one. In 1991 Ebersol went to Bob Wright, the CEO of NBC, with a strategy to collect the crown jewels in sports and spelled out what doing so could mean for the network's parent company, General Electric. As television, cable-system and computer technology change kaleidoscopically, one constant is the need for software, or programming. What better way, Ebersol figured, to compel every member of the family to watch your network than to secure the Olympics well into the next millennium? Wright bought into Ebersol's thinking, then the two sold the idea to General Electric chairman Jack Welch.

Sealing the Olympic deals was a team effort, with crucial input from Welch, as well as from Wright and a pair of NBC executives, Randy Falco and Alex Gilady, an Israeli who is also an IOC member. But the quarterback was Ebersol. "He's the lead dog here," Wright says. "His focus all along has been to gather all the major sports properties. And he has the ability to deliver."

He also has an almost unbroken record of success: In 1975 he launched NBC's Saturday Night Live with Lorne Michaels. As an independent producer, he created Saturday Night's Main Event wrestling extravaganzas and Friday Night Videos in the mid-'80s. One of his few failures was his decision to replace Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville on the Today show. His professional élan is matched by a personal one. He wed actress Susan Saint James after just a six-week courtship. They have three sons and recently celebrated their 14th anniversary.

The latest Olympics' deal may be even more of a blind leap than Ebersol's whirlwind courtship and marriage. In addition to risking economic slumps over the next 13 years that could wreak havoc with the advertising market, from which the network must garner the money to cover its investments in the Games, NBC has purchased Olympics at sites that have yet to be determined. In the Games as in real estate, the most important factors are location, location, location. The network's multi-billion-dollar commitment doesn't entitle it to any formal input in the site-selection process, though it's hard to believe its opinions will go unheard. But coming on the heels of the Atlanta and Salt Lake City Olympics, none of the three Games is likely to be held in the U.S. (chart, page 57).

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