Legends Behind the Lens: Neal Pilson

The master negotiator brought an era of stability and paved a prosperous future path for CBS Sports

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.

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By Jason Dachman

Whether in the boardroom, at the negotiating table, or evaluating a sports telecast, Neal Pilson demonstrates a preternatural knack for making the right decision at the right time.

During 19 years at CBS, including 13 as president of CBS Sports, Pilson helped transform the Tiffany Network into a live-sports-programming goliath and earned a reputation as a tenacious but honest negotiator and cerebral tactician. Departing CBS in 1994, he launched consulting firm Pilson Communications Inc. (PCI) and has played an integral role in the negotiations for billions of dollars in sports-rights deals over the past two and half decades.

“Neal has been a force in the sports-business industry for decades,” says CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “With rights deals ranging from the NFL, NBA, MLB, PGA, the Masters, and NCAA football and basketball and Final Fours to the Olympics and NASCAR, his legacy of building and upholding the tradition of CBS Sports is as much a part of our long and storied history as are the great events and moments we have broadcast.”

Yale Law, Metromedia, and the William Morris Agency
The New York City native earned an AB in history at Hamilton College, where he was elected Phi Beta Kappa and played varsity basketball. Graduating from Yale Law School in 1963, he spent six years at a small private New York City law firm.

“Incidentally, I did a lot of work writing up contracts for clients,” he remembers. “So those six years in a law firm doing contracts work turned out to be very useful.”

Hearing about a job opening at Metromedia through a friend from his political career (Pilson served as a village trustee in Ardsley, NY), he landed a job in the law department writing up contracts for the media company, which owned dozens of TV and radio stations and produced original content for the broadcast networks and for syndication. He soon transitioned to business affairs, finding himself at the head of the negotiating table for the first time.

“That was a critical change in my career,” he says, because I was now responsible for negotiating deals rather than just writing up the deals. All of a sudden, I was the lead pony at the [negotiating] table.”

Six years later, Metromedia closed its entertainment division, and Pilson headed the law department for the William Morris Agency. That short stint ended when CBS came calling with an offer to revamp its sports operation, which ranked third in the three-network world that existed at the time.

Dawn of the CBS Era: A Rising Star at the Tiffany Network
Becoming director of business affairs for CBS Sports in July 1976, Pilson was tasked with building up its stable of live sports properties. Although CBS’s marquee rights included the NFL, NBA, the Masters, PGA golf, and US Open tennis, much of its coverage was tape-delayed and relegated to the CBS Sports Spectacular program.

“We had a few [marquee] properties but not many,” Pilson says. “So we were aggressively looking for live programming, rather than [tape-delayed] events.”

After wresting the rights to the World Figure Skating Championships away from ABC and landing a handful of other up-and-coming properties for live coverage, Pilson worked with Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Barry Frank, who was CBS Sports president at the time, and NASCAR announcer Ken Squer on one of the most important rights deals in the history of sports television: a deal with NASCAR for flag-to-flag live coverage of the 1979 Daytona 500, as well as races at Talladega and Charlotte. Until then, NASCAR had been relegated primarily to post-event coverage on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The move proved to be a windfall for CBS and would elevate NASCAR from a regional property to one of the most popular sports in the U.S.

“Neal brought stability to [CBS Sports]. I look back at Neal’s run as the golden age of CBS Sports.” – former Fox Sports executive Ed Goren

“Neal played a critical role in the entire development of the sports-rights [business],” says Frank. “He and I worked together to accomplish the NASCAR deal with CBS, and that was a major factor in the growth of NASCAR. Subsequently, when he was president of the sports division, he played a huge role in all of the negotiations. He was extremely successful in bringing those rights to the network and making deals that made a lot of sense and were extremely fortuitous.”

The CBS Sports Presidency: Building Up a Store of Rights
By 1981, CBS was looking to establish stability atop its sports ranks, which had four presidents in just five years. The network turned to Pilson — by that point, a rising star at the Tiffany Network — who, at age 41, became the youngest president in CBS Sports history.

“I felt like I knew what had to be done to get us on the right track, and I believed I had a good feel for what made a quality sports telecast,” says Pilson. “That’s what I offered when I became president of the sports division. I didn’t come from a sports-production background like many of the other [network sports presidents] but could watch a sports event and identify what’s good about it and what needed to be changed. That is a critical skill. I was focused on the quality of our coverage as perceived by the average viewer rather than the view in from inside the truck.”

As president, he continued to bolster CBS Sports’ portfolio, adding a deal for the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 1981 (previously held by NBC Sports) and inking one of the first billion-dollar deals, for exclusive rights to the entire NCAA Tournament beginning in 1990 (ESPN had previously televised all rounds prior to the Final Four).

“That was a very important deal,” Pilson notes. “We persuaded the network to go with primetime basketball Thursday and Friday nights, which was a big step. And we regionalized all of the games and staggered the start times, so we could cover the end of each game as it finished up.”

CBS built up its cache of college-football rights, broadcasting games from every major conference throughout the early ’80s. The landmark NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma decision opened up the college-football–rights landscape in 1984, and Pilson and company further expanded the CBS portfolio with games from the Big Ten, Pac-10, Army-Navy, and University of Miami and then landed the CFA national-TV package in 1987 as part of a three-year deal.

Between 1983 and ’86, Pilson served as EVP of CBS Broadcast Group — with CBS Sports, CBS Radio, CBS Television Stations, and the Operations Division reporting to him — before transitioning back to president of CBS Sports.

He led CBS’s successful $643 million bid for the 1992 Albertville and 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, both delivering ratings gold for the network, and a $375 million deal for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. The 1994 Games, in particular, were a milestone for CBS: the Nancy Kerrigan/Tanya Harding soap opera powered the network to record ratings (including the fourth-largest primetime audience to date for the women’s figure-skating short program).

Pilson brought the PGA Championship to CBS in 1991; negotiated several renewal agreements for the NFL, Masters, NBA, PGA Tour, and US Open tennis; and pioneered the model of sharing coverage with a cable network: namely, the U.S. Open golf tournament and the Masters with USA and the Olympics and PGA Championship with Turner.

“We developed a very strong live on-air presence,” says Pilson. “We were very competitive in [negotiating for] just about every major property that came up. Between 1979, when we [secured the] Daytona 500, and 1993, when we lost the NFL, we were first or close to first among all the [broadcast networks] when it came to sports.”

The success of the Winter Olympics were a highlight for CBS Sports, but the early ’90s proved challenging, with the loss of the NBA to NBC Sports in 1990 (CBS elected to keep the NCAA Tournament rights); a money-losing four-year MLB-rights deal; and the loss of its NFL package to Fox Sports in 1993. In 1994, Pilson left CBS Sports and served as SVP of CBS Broadcast Group before retiring from the network in June 1995.

“Before Neal took over as president of CBS Sports, it seemed like we had a new president every couple years,” says Fox Sports pioneer Ed Goren, a producer at CBS Sports throughout Pilson’s tenure. “Neal brought stability to the company. I look back at Neal’s run as the golden age of CBS Sports.”

Cultivating the Next Generation of CBS Sports Personalities
As president, Pilson and Executive Producer Ted Shaker recruited many of the on-air faces that would become signature personalities at CBS Sports and elsewhere, including James Brown, Greg Gumbel, and Jim Nantz.

“It was 30 years ago that Neal Pilson and Ted Shaker took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to call NFL games on CBS,” says Gumbel. “I have been and will forever be grateful.”

Says Brown, “[Pilson] made it possible for me to expand my broadcasting horizons beyond basketball, covering sports that included water polo, the Tour de France, gymnastics, rock climbing️, and the NFL. I am grateful for the opportunities provided to grow in every aspect of the business.”

Nantz sounds a similar note: “I have tremendous respect for Neal and what he did in procuring so many massive events. We had basically everything. We even had the dream season of 1990, when we had the World Series, the Final Four, the Super Bowl, and the Masters. He has touched this business and many careers in so many ways, and I’m very grateful that he also touched mine.”

PCI: Driving Force in Rights Deals, Landmark Court Decisions
Pilson’s career was far from finished when he left CBS. He formed PCI and immediately called his old sparring partner, Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Bill France Jr., then CEO, NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway.

“Bill asked if I would go to CBS and try to get all that money I was holding out on him in our multiple rights-fee negotiations over the years,” says Pilson. “He thought that would be a great idea. So, the day after I left CBS, I launched [PCI], and NASCAR and Daytona became our first client.”

Pilson landed a healthy increase for the NASCAR rights and would go on to consult on several NASCAR deals over the subsequent two decades.

PCI has helped engineer major deals for the International Olympic Committee (with NBC Olympics for the Vancouver and London Games), Rose Bowl (with ESPN), Kentucky Derby (with NBC Sports Group), the new Big East (with Fox Sports), World Series of Poker (with ESPN), Arena Football League (various deals over 15 years), University of Connecticut, University of Oklahoma, Maui Jim Basketball Tournament, Olympic Golf Club of San Francisco, and Coaches Cabana with Barry Switzer, just to name a few.

“It has always been a pleasure to do anything with Neal Pilson because he is one of the brightest people I know and he’s extraordinarily fair in his [negotiating],” says Frank. “Above all else, Neal Pilson is a good guy and one of the few that will always be remembered as someone that is good to work with, good to work for, and good to work opposite.”

Pilson has also served as an expert witness and strategic consultant on several landmark sports-media court cases, including for the NCAA (in O’Bannon v. NCAA class-action lawsuit), Horizon Sports Management (in litigation commenced by Rory McIlroy), the WGN and the Chicago Cubs (as independent appraiser to both parties in establishing fair-market value of the Cubs’ local TV rights), the NFL (in litigation commenced by the NFLPA regarding work-stoppage payments from TV networks), and the NBA (in the Spirit of St. Louis lawsuit involving TV rights).

Philanthropist, Educator, and Local Politician
Although esteemed most for his work at CBS Sports and PCI, he views his role in launching the annual March of Dimes Sports Luncheon in New York more than three decades ago as one of his prime accomplishments. Pilson, whose son was born deaf, was a long-time board member and originally chaired the luncheon, which now raises more than $1 million each year.

“I learned a lot from Neal working together on [several rights deals], but, most of all, I’ve enjoyed working with him since 1984 on the March of Dimes Luncheon,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and fellow March of Dimes NY board member Joe Cohen. “Neal’s leadership, wisdom, and grace have made our association stronger and our long relationship always pleasant. I consider him a good friend and a mentor.”

Today, Pilson operates PCI out of his office in Lenox, MA, and serves as Chair of the Selectboard for Richmond, MA. He is also an adjunct professor and member of the Columbia University Graduate Program in Sports Management, where he has taught the Leadership Skills course since 2009. He and his wife of 56 years, Frieda, have three grown children and six grandchildren.

“When people ask, ‘What would you do differently?’ I’m probably one of the few people you’d talk to who would not change a single thing,” says Pilson. “I’ve been lucky in many ways, and I’m truly happy with every career decision and the wonderful relationships I’ve made along the way.”

The video in this profile was originally produced in 2018. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.