Will NBC's 'Sports Czar For Life' Get New Wind From Comcast Deal?
He's been a bit like Tiger Woods -- pre-Thanksgiving.
There's been some occasional criticism of Dick Ebersol. There were Olympic broadcasts in some temporal iteration known as "plausibly live." The much-hyped XFL was a short-lived disaster. But NBC Universal's Sports Czar For Life would just skate by, as easily as many of the figure skaters that turned the Winter Games he managed into a hit.
Now, Comcast -- the would-be penny pinchers, the eat-at-T.G.I. Friday's-on-your-per-diem crew -- is set to gain control of NBCU. And management looks enamored with Ebersol.
It seems willing to give him unlimited rein over an ESPN-lite sports universe. Maybe near-bottomless funds to acquire league rights, hire talent, even try something like the XFL again. (Could it be worse than Comcast's UFL this fall?)
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts offered praise for two NBCU executives Thursday: Jeff Zucker and Ebersol. He touted both twice on a conference call and was equally effusive. "It's fair to say that when you think of sports on a national or global scale, it's hard not to think of NBC Sports and Dick Ebersol," Roberts said.
Back when NBC signed a deal giving it Olympic rights through 2012, it was Ebersol's so-called "sunshine deal." He'd slink off into retirement after that.
Now, life for the 62-year-old looks Comcastic. Hello new contract, control of Versus and the Golf Channel, and regional sports networks that print money. The chance to make Fandango a sports site -- the name fits, right?
Oh, and apparently personal masseuses and securitized presidential suites.
The widely read and well-respected USA Today sports columnist Michael Hiestand appeared on a Toronto radio station last week saying he liked Ebersol -- then kept ripping him. "I have to take my hat off to Dick for self-promotion over the years," Hiestand said. "If you look at NBC in this decade what exactly have they done?"
The Arena Football League was a bust, he said, and National Hockey League and Notre Dame football ratings have been lackluster.
Ebersol has suggested he convinced the National Football League to bring games to NBC with "flex scheduling," which allows the network to offer more attractive match-ups.
But Heistand was skeptical. "Monday Night Football" had dud games on ABC for years. Hiestand said the "flexing" was less Ebersol's handiwork and more the NFL wanting to avoid the prime-time flops.
Hiestand also went after Ebersol's dear Olympics, where the executive has had an involvement since 1972. Last summer, NBC leaders touted the Summer Games as a huge success, even a reaffirmation of broadcast TV's primacy.
But Hiestand wasn't buying it. "If you take out the Michael Phelps ratings in Beijing, those were sort of so-so -- same with (the Winter Games) in '06," he said.
The Toronto radio hosts wanted to move onto another subject. But Hiestand wanted to return to the Olympics. NBCU spends about as much in "production costs" on the Olympics as rights fees. And Hiestand suggested in the interview there was profligacy under Ebersol's watch.There's "so much fat in that budget," he said.
Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he said NBC brought thousands of pounds of its own coffee to Italy, despite the local cappuccino. And NBC consistently takes over top-notch hotels for talent and staffers.
Hiestand suggested NBC might have to "pack their own food and masseuses" when Comcast reviews NBC's budget for the 2012 Games in London,
On Thursday, Roberts was asked by investors whether Comcast would pursue further Olympic rights. He largely demurred, saying NBCU owner General Electric would decide how aggressively to bid for the 2014 and 2016 Games.
Ebersol often suggests he has more influence with the International Olympic Committee than Procter & Gamble does on Madison Avenue. So what if Comcast quietly tells NBC it wants the rights to Russia and Rio?
If ESPN offers more dough, could Ebersol use those contacts to land the Games for Comcast?
"Me and my dog could pick up Olympic rights if we bid a buck more than the opponents," Hiestand said. "I think personal relationships just are overrated."
Nonetheless, Comcast and Brian Roberts seem to feel they have a golden retriever in Ebersol.