Despite this, Ebersol could wind up a big winner. For one thing, if inflation exceeds the 3% rate built into its deal with the IOC, NBC would be paying off its investment in cheap dollars. The Atlanta Games may be a good omen; NBC paid $456 million for those rights, and Ebersol says ad sales have passed the $600 million mark.
There is art to an Ebersol deal. It's a seduction. He determines what the object of his affection wants to hear, whether that object is basketball commissioner David Stern, acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig, or Samaranch and IOC television negotiator Dick Pound, and then he murmurs it into their ears. Ebersol has a habit of likening negotiations to love affairs, and his blockbuster Olympic deals owe much to the strength of his personal charm. "He has this quality of remembering things." Costas says. "Things about your personal life that are important to you, like what grade your kids are in or where your wife went to college."
Ebersol knows what people want to hear, because he is consistently better prepared and informed than his rivals. He rises at 6:15 every morning in his Manhattan apartment with a wraparound terrace and reads four daily newspapers. He also reads the Star and the National Enquirer, although he doesn't have them delivered to his house. "I also read the New York Post," he says. "In the car." He does not go anywhere without a fax machine. "He comes home and sits in his boxer shorts, reading a stack up to his knees," says Saint James.
Ebersol is so on top of his game that he drives his friends and associates crazy. Recently he called Stern to inform him what time he thought the NBA All-Star Game should be telecast...in 2002. "it's totally obsessive-compulsive behavior," Stern says. "To the point where you say, 'For crissake, go out on a boat or something.' "
But Ebersol's facility to absorb and process huge amounts of information was one of the keys to staging his Olympic coup. So was his ability to act fast. Two days before NBC announced that it had acquired the Sydney and Salt Lake City Olympic Games, the idea for a precedent-setting package deal did not even exist.
Ebersol's excellent Olympic adventure began on Aug. 1, when he was in Atlanta on business and received a call from Wright, who was ready to crunch numbers on the Olympic-rights bidding for Sydney, which was expected to occur in a few weeks. Wright wanted to take an aggressive stance. The Australian-born Murdoch badly wanted the U.S. rights for Fox and had indicated he was willing to spend $701 million to get them. Also, just that day, Westinghouse had agreed to purchase CBS, and only a day earlier Disney and Cap Cities/ABC had agreed to merge. The competition suddenly had much deeper pockets. Wright asked Ebersol to fly back to New York to talk.
At 9 a.m. on Aug. 2, Ebersol handed Wright a nine-page financial analysis. Murdoch loomed as such a threat that Ebersol was considering making a joint bid with ABC. The NBC and ABC staffs had spent weeks talking, but Wright didn't like the numbers. At noon he asked the fateful question: "Can't we do this ourselves?"
It was clear to Ebersol that it would take a daring move to beat Murdoch, so he told Wright: "The only way we'll get this is with a novel idea—and a lot of money." Wright said he would have a hard time shelling out such a sum for an Olympics that, because of the 15-hour time difference between Sydney and the U.S. East Coast, would be primarily a taped event. Wright was far more enamored of the 2002 Winter Games, which would be a live event. But the Salt Lake City Games weren't on the table yet. It was at that moment that Wright and Falco had an idea: Why don't we go for two?
Ebersol, Falco and Ed Swindler, from NBC's finance department, got out pencils and calculators and rapidly drew up a proposal. Using the speaker phone, Wright then called Welch on Nantucket, where he was vacationing. Ebersol explained that a double-barreled approach was a long shot and that speed and secrecy would be of the essence. "Why not take my plane?" Welch suggested.
Ebersol sent a message to his wife and kids, who were off sailing: "Gone to Europe." Then Ebersol, Falco and Gilady, whose IOC membership gives him an entrée to Samaranch that makes executives of rival networks see red, boarded the GE Gulfstream IV at a suburban New York airport and flew to Göteborg, Sweden, where the World Track and Field Championships were about to begin. There they hoped to meet with Pound, the Montreal tax attorney who is an IOC member as well as the committee's chief TV negotiator for North America.