Legends Behind the Lens: Dick Ebersol
One of sports television's greatest executives was also one of the most influential entertainers in the history of the medium
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
In the sports industry, it is rare to find an executive who is both brilliant at business and an exceptional marketer. Dick Ebersol is both, plus an outstanding producer. A legendary storyteller known for his passion, creativity, and execution, he is a superstar in not one field but three.
“In this business, you never really meet anyone who is all three of those things,” says Fred Gaudelli, producer for the NBC Sports Group. “With Dick, you are truly working with the total package because he is so equipped at every level. Working with him is a tremendous education, and a real honor.”
Learned From the Master
Ebersol began his television career in 1967, when he temporarily dropped out of Yale University to become television’s first-ever Olympic researcher, working for Roone Arledge at ABC Sports. He spent six years working in production and as Arledge’s executive assistant, contributing to such iconic programming as Wide World of Sports and coverage of three Olympic Games.
“So much of shaping how I have done events — produced, promoted, and marketed events — all came from Roone,” Ebersol says. “From July of ’67 until I left in August of ’74, I had the best front seat at the best finishing school ever invented for sports television: the mind of Roone Arledge.”
Ebersol then joined NBC as director of weekend late night programming. He was subsequently named VP of late-night programming, becoming, at 28, the network’s first under-30 VP. He hired Lorne Michaels, and, in 1975, the two created Saturday Night Live.
“Like his mentor and inspiration Roone Arledge, Dick has made a major impact as a producer, creative force, executive, and deal maker,” says sportscaster Bob Costas. “Few people in the history of television have made such an impact in so many different areas.”
The Gold Standard
After forming an independent production company in 1983, Ebersol returned to NBC in 1989. As president of NBC Sports, he created NBA on NBC, a 12-year partnership that helped revitalize the NBC Sports brand and serves as the gold standard for league-network relationships. From 1989 to ’91, he also served as senior vice president of NBC News.
“The thing that makes Dick special is his passion,” says sportscaster John Madden. “He doesn’t do anything halfway, and he does it with real love. I think you could take any area of broadcasting — news, sports, or entertainment — and say Dick Ebersol is a leader in that area. He’s great at everything he does.”
“There are very few people that have ever done in television broadcasting what Dick Ebersol has done and I don’t think there will ever be another person that will do the things that he has done.” – John Madden
Ebersol has had the good fortune and great skill to work on every event that has ever appealed to him. He has negotiated dozens of landmark rights agreements, garnering for NBC coverage of the NFL, NBA, MLB, the USGA Championships, Notre Dame football, and every Olympic Games since 2000.
As executive producer of eight Olympic Games, Ebersol has steadily increased NBC’s hours of Olympic coverage. He led its foray into digital and mobile platforms to enhance its Olympic coverage and transformed the network’s Olympic broadcasts into must-see TV.
“Dick has been one of the more unique executives in the history of sports television and has done everything, but at heart, he’s a producer,” says Howard Katz, SVP, broadcasting and media operations, for the NFL.
Eight of the Top Ten
Indeed, the Olympic Games that Ebersol has produced account for eight of the 10 most-watched television events in U.S. history. The consummate producer’s efforts have attracted hundreds of millions of viewers to NBC, captivating them with behind-the-scenes stories about the athletes, coaches, and human beings that lie beneath the surface of the competition.
“In terms of depth and global breadth, there’s nothing like the Olympics on Dick’s watch,” says NBA Commissioner David Stern. “There is no facet of any issue that he doesn’t look at. He is an extraordinarily talented executive who comes with an attention to detail and an intensity that make him unique.”
Over the past six years, Ebersol has brought that intensity to Sunday Night Football, revitalizing the brand into the No. 1 primetime show of the fall. The agreement he devised in 2005 included the NFL’s first-ever flexible scheduling, as well as two Super Bowls for NBC.
“He revitalized Sunday Night Football by building an environment around the show that made it a unique and special event,” explains Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. “A lot of that is because of his understanding of how to present an entertainment product to a vast array of people.”
Just as Ebersol took fans behind the curtain of Olympic broadcasts, he is now leading new droves of NFL fans inside the helmet on Sunday nights.
“We know that the success of our game is directly related to how our broadcast partners present our game, and Dick has done an unbelievable job of presenting our game to our fans,” says NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “In a world that is drastically changing as far as technology is concerned, he has been able to keep fans interested in whatever he’s broadcasting. He had the vision to create the No. 1 show on television right now, Sunday Night Football, and, for that, we will be forever grateful.”
The Personal Side
As professionally talented and driven as Ebersol is, he is equally thoughtful and caring on a personal level. No matter the content of the show, everyone working alongside him gets the sense that they are working on the most important show in television.
“He is the warmest, most caring chief executive and has the most compassion of any senior executive that I have worked with in 35 years in the industry,” says Michael Meehan, SVP of sports operations for NBC Sports. “Couple that with his demand for the highest level of production performance, and you can see why he is an icon in the industry.”
Goodell adds, “He is a special person. He is a dear friend and someone who cares about people and cares about improving everything that he is involved with. Professionally and personally, he believes that there is a way that everyone should operate, and I admire that a great deal.”
Deeply and passionately connected to his past, Ebersol jumps on opportunities to bring that past to life.
“I know that his childhood hero was Muhammad Ali,” says Kraft, who is also chairman of the NFL TV committee. “Dick orchestrated Ali’s lighting of the torch in 1996 at the Opening Games of the Olympics, which was one of those moments that give you goose bumps. Dick’s visionary way of looking at things, through his loyalty to his roots, put something together that had mass appeal. He is part of a special breed of executive.”
Currently senior advisor to NBC Sports Group, Ebersol has worked to create a finishing school for production personnel, pairing new recruits with seasoned veterans to refine the art of storytelling. He is dedicated to developing the next class of production experts, and they have at their disposal the greatest inspiration the industry has to offer: Ebersol himself.
“There are very few people that have ever done in television broadcasting what Dick Ebersol has done,” Madden says, “and I don’t think there will ever be another person that will do the things that he has done. No one will ever again have the talents that Dick has.”