Life after EbersolMarch 5, 2012: 3:25 PM ET
The inside story of how Comcast-owned NBC Sports rallied after its iconic leader was forced out.
By Douglas Alden Warshaw, contributor
FORTUNE -- Dick Ebersol's resignation from NBC in May 2011 shocked the television world. The departure -- it became clear he and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke had different views on what Ebersol's role should be after Comcast (CMCSA) acquired control of NBC -- was front page news in the next day's New York Times.
It would be hard to overstate Ebersol's presence at NBC. For more than two decades every major decision at NBC Sports -- what sports rights to buy, how much to bid, what type of programing to put on the air, how much (or how little) to invest in digital media -- was made or approved by Ebersol. And so were a great many minor decisions.
Just as importantly, as the Chairman of NBC Sports, Ebersol served as a father figure to a couple of generations of behind-the-scenes talent at NBC, and his bond with his employees became even more intense after he survived a 2004 plane crash that took the life of his 14-year-old son, Teddy. (A few years later Fortune chronicled Ebersol's journey after the tragedy.)
On the day Ebersol left NBC, even as employees were reacting to the news, a small group of top executives and producers turned their attention to the pressing issue of NBC's multi-billion bid for the next set of Olympic Games, due just three weeks later.
Each time NBC had previously bid on the games, Ebersol had always orchestrated, conducted and led the presentations, which were more than an hour-long, woven together with emotional, heart-tugging videos and reams of research -- topped off by bids from the Chairman offering the IOC a pile of cash.
With the clock ticking, Ebersol's replacement, Mark Lazarus (a close friend whom Ebersol personally recruited to NBC) quickly began calling his list of critical clients and colleagues, top NBC talent like Bob Costas, and, crucially, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge to assure them that everything was under control at NBC Sports.
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Lazarus called Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, to talk about the fast approaching deadline for NBC's upcoming bid presentation. They set up a meeting for that Sunday with Zenkel's Olympic team, all of them Ebersol acolytes with some 30 Games' worth of experience among them, dating back to 1988, and all of them in Lazarus's words, "hurt and wounded, as well they should be." Lazarus then called Steve Burke and suggested he attend the meeting, too. Burke brought along his boss, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.
Ebersol's presence continued to loom large at NBC Sports, in more ways than one. Fortune has learned that the day after his resignation, Ebersol stunned the Olympic team by showing up unannounced at their Connecticut office and sitting with them for an hour, talking about their presentation and expressing how much he still wanted NBC to win the bid. Ebersol declined to comment.
"He cared enough about us personally, that he put whatever bad feelings aside," says Molly Solomon, NBC Olympics coordinating producer. "There's this fallacy out there that Dick wanted NBC to fail. Instead, he was almost more invested. He so wanted us to win." Ebersol ended his unexpected farewell meeting by passing the torch and telling his former team, "It's your time."
With Ebersol's blessing, that Sunday the team went on to win over a couple of skeptics, Comcast's Roberts and Burke. Then the team won over the International Olympic Committee, culminating in a $4.4 billion bid that secured for NBC the digital and broadcast rights to the Games through 2020.
Burke found out about NBC's winning bid, on the airplane ride back from meeting with the Olympic committee in Lausanne, Switzerland. The first person Burke called to relay the news? Dick Ebersol. And three months later, Mark Lazarus hired Ebersol back to NBC as an advisor to the 2012 Olympics and NBC's Sunday night football broadcasts.
-- Douglas Alden Warshaw is a digital strategist and author. He is a former television news and sports producer who has worked for ESPN and NBC Sports. His writings on media can be found at FrstPrsn.com.