Wright burst out laughing. "You're kidding," he said. "Is this realistic?" Once Ebersol persuaded him that it was, Wright told Ebersol to go ahead.
Ebersol spent the next six weeks pulling together his plan. "This one didn't have the intrigue of the first one," he says. He flew from the Ryder Cup in Rochester, N.Y., to Switzerland on Sept. 25 to see Samaranch again. In the Lausanne Palace suite where Samaranch lives, Ebersol outlined his plan to acquire the 2004 and 2006 Olympics. Pound, who was also in Lausanne, says, "I was one-and-a-half times as impressed with this idea," and he asked for time to write a "term paper" on how the deal could work. The principals nicknamed their endeavor the Sunset Project—"because we knew it would be the end of Olympic negotiating for all of us," Ebersol says. "It would take us to the sunset of our careers."
The negotiating teams met again on Nov. 7, at which point Pound had a surprise: The IOC wanted to deal in a full quadrennium, so 2008 was on the table. This was important because the IOC sells sponsorships in four-year packages. The sides met next on Nov. 20, and when they broke that day, they had an agreement. Several more days were spent ironing out the details.
Ebersol's critics have suggested that he gets the jump on his foes by saying what suits his purpose without precisely lying. The New York Times sports media columnist Richard Sandomir dubbed NBC's reversal on baseball the "Ebersol dance." Last summer Ebersol angrily walked away from negotiations for a joint ABC-NBC baseball network, vowing he wouldn't be involved in the sport "for the rest of the century." Five months later, there he was announcing a deal to return baseball to NBC in the 1996 postseason.
There is one thing Ebersol is consistent about: his love for the Olympics. "It is my passion," he says. His ardor dates back to the early 1960s when he was a teenager watching ABC's fledgling attempts to span the globe. In '66 he left Yale temporarily when Arledge hired him as ABC's first Olympic researcher. Ebersol took five years to graduate because he kept running off on jobs. He would schedule classes for Mondays and Tuesdays and fly to Europe on Wednesdays, returning to campus on Sundays.
Ebersol was Arledge's executive assistant in 1972 when he went to the Munich Olympics, where he and Arledge worked through the night of Sept. 4. They were leaving the ABC compound near dawn when Arledge paused to gaze at the fading full moon. Nearby, a dark incline led to a chain-link fence, beyond which was the Olympic Village and the athletes' dormitories. For several minutes they enjoyed the moonlight while Arledge waxed poetic. Just before sunrise they got in their car and drove away. Munich police later told them that hiding in the well of the incline 50 feet from them was the gang of Arab terrorists about to launch the attack that would result in the deaths of 11 Israeli team members and a West German policeman. About the time Arledge and Ebersol pulled away, the terrorists rose out of the dark and scaled the fence. It was the opinion of local officials that had Arledge and Ebersol not left before sunrise, they would have been killed.
Ebersol's knowledge of and love for the Olympics may have been the ultimate deal-maker. "We have a very high degree of confidence in our relationship with NBC," Pound says. "If I have a question, I won't look at the contract. I'll pick up the phone."
Some of Ebersol's rivals at the other networks argue that by deciding not to open up the TV-rights process to competitive bidding, as has been the practice in the past, the IOC may have left some big bucks on the table. Even Pound concedes, "We traded the dynamics of the marketplace for a certainty." But Pound also notes that the deal provides for a 50-50 split of advertising revenues between NBC and the IOC after the network's rights payments and production costs are met. This means that if NBC reaps a bonanza, the IOC will share in it.
Whether the agreement is a favorable one for prospective host cities remains to be seen, but at east their revenue projections will be stabilized. Beginning in 2004, he local organizing committee of each Olympics will receive 49% of the funds paid by NBC for those Games; formerly host organizations received 60%. But all too often they've been bedeviled by financial uncertainty. For instance, organizers of the '88 Seoul Olympics based their bid on the assumption that U.S. television rights would fetch $500 million; NBC paid only $300 million. Says Anita DeFrantz of the IOC's executive board, "We were concerned because in the past we have seen lids that had unrealistic numbers in regard to U.S. television; the host cities become disappointed."
For its part, NBC is betting that the Olympics will hold their current market value—but what if they don't? After the '84 Los Angeles Games, the sports-marketing industry went into a virtual depression hat all but devastated CBS Sports, which had committed heavily to premier events. In four, six or eight years, Ebersol's plan could look like a blueprint for sinking a network. "We could be in a loss proposition on any one of these Olympics," Wright says. "Can you hedge against utter disaster? No."