Dick Ebersol Found the Magic of Sports—a World of Unexpected Results

From a Wall Street Journal story by Emily Bobrow headlined “Dick Ebersol Found the Magic of Sports Behind the Camera”:

Dick Ebersol, once hailed by the Sporting News as the “most powerful person in sports,” was never much of an athlete. A “mediocre forward” on his high school basketball team, he admits that he was “primarily distinguished by my thick glasses and limited ability.” He preferred to watch instead, finding the earliest sports broadcasts on television “magical,” even on the black-and-white set of his childhood. From a young age, he recalls over video from his home in Telluride, Colo., he was “transfixed by whatever was going on behind the camera. I wanted to learn as much about that as possible.”

Mr. Ebersol’s success behind the camera as a producer and executive for NBC has earned him spots in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame and a 2009 Sports Emmy for Lifetime Achievement, among other honors. He was responsible for securing NBC’s place as the network home of the U.S. Olympics and for creating “Sunday Night Football,” a program that has dominated prime-time ratings since its launch in 2006. He also helped to create the long-running sketch-comedy show “Saturday Night Live.”

As Mr. Ebersol, 75, writes in his new memoir “From Saturday Night to Sunday Night,” out next week, he loved nearly every part of his job running NBC’s sports coverage from 1989 until he retired in 2012. Yet now that he is comfortably ensconced in what he calls “retirement world”—spending time with grandchildren and shuttling between homes in Maui, New York City and Litchfield, Conn., with his wife of over 40 years, the Emmy Award-winning actress Susan Saint James—Mr. Ebersol sounds relieved to be out of broadcasting. He insists that audiences still show up for big-time sports and “anything that puts you in a world of unexpected results.” Yet he admits that he’s glad to no longer be in the hot seat. “There are so many things to watch, so many alternatives, viewership for everything is in decline today,” he observes. It hardly helps, he adds, that no one seems to know who’s watching what and on which platform.

Growing up in Litchfield, Mr. Ebersol was the kind of hustler who held down three jobs by age 9. He was 10 when games featuring his beloved New York Yankees and New York Giants first aired on TV. Mickey Mantle’s 1956 baseball stats “were like my lucky numbers,” he writes.

When ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” first entered living rooms across America in 1961, Mr. Ebersol was riveted. The weekly show transformed sports broadcasting by introducing camera angles and boom mics that put viewers inside the action. It also demonstrated how personal stories about otherwise unknown athletes could grab audiences’ “hearts, their minds and, as we say in television, their eyeballs.”

As a high-school exchange student in France, Mr. Ebersol traveled to the famous sports-car race in Le Mans and searched for the ABC trailers to introduce himself. His pluck as an errand boy earned him the chance to fetch yet more coffee and cigarettes for ABC’s crew in New Haven, Conn., while he was studying history at Yale. When ABC asked him to travel the world gathering back-stories for athletes competing in the 1968 Olympics, he put his studies on hold. As he watched the Games unfold from behind the scenes, he says he knew that “this was absolutely what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.”

Within hours of getting his Yale diploma in 1970, Mr. Ebersol was back in Le Mans as a production assistant. His work on other events got the attention of ABC president Roone Arledge, who made Mr. Ebersol his assistant and gave him “a graduate-level education on the business side of the industry.”

In 1974, Mr. Ebersol accepted an offer from NBC to create a new show for Saturday nights. A “hip” 30-year-old writer named Lorne Michaels impressed him with a vision for what the next generation of comedy could look and sound like on TV. “Saturday Night Live” wasn’t an instant success when it premiered in 1975, with a crew of newcomers including Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner. Yet young people increasingly tuned in, and by 1976 “SNL” had bagged three Emmys and a cameo from President Gerald Ford.

Mr. Ebersol left the show after its first year, but when Mr. Michaels departed in 1980 and ratings began to tank, he was brought back in to save it. His solution was to give a 19-year-old cast member named Eddie Murphy as much airtime as possible and then to hire a few stars, including Billy Crystal and Martin Short. By 1985 “SNL” was on steadier footing and Mr. Ebersol—who met his wife when she hosted the show in 1981—was glad to hand it back to Mr. Michaels. “I got along well enough with comedy writers, but he has a special touch,” Mr. Ebersol says.

He had been away from sports television for nearly 15 years when NBC asked him to lead the network’s sports division in 1989. With the backing of Jack Welch’s General Electric, which bought the network in 1986, Mr. Ebersol swiftly lured the National Basketball Association to the network, which in the era of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Nealboosted NBC’s ratings and revitalized its reputation. Other deals followed, and in 1995-96 NBC became the first (and still only) network to host the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the Summer Olympics in a single year. “It really was an unforgettable run,” he recalls.

By the late 1990s, the shifting economics of TV began to favor the cable sports network ESPN, which outbid NBC for professional baseball, basketball and football. Mr. Ebersol also made a costly bet on the XFL, a playfully bombastic football league created by his friend Vince McMahon, formerly of World Wrestling Entertainment. In 2001 it became the lowest-rated show in prime time.

Yet Mr. Ebersol brought the NFL back to NBC with “Sunday Night Football,” and the network still had the Olympics. Although his productions earned some criticism for delaying the broadcast of popular Olympic events until prime time, he remains unbowed: “You lay out billions for these rights, and you want a healthy return.”

In 2004, a private jet carrying Mr. Ebersol and two of his sons crashed during takeoff, killing his 14-year-old son, Teddy. Although he remains haunted by this loss, he believes it helped that Ms. Saint James encouraged the family to spend weeks together grieving under one roof. “My only piece of advice is to talk about that person that you lost, to bring that person to life,” he says.

When Comcast bought NBC from GE, Mr. Ebersol sensed it was time to walk away. The business was changing, and he worried that the incoming leadership prized number-crunching over storytelling. As he looks back, he’s too aware of his good fortune to nurse any grudges: “I’d been in the right place, with the right people around, above, and below me, to make it all happen.”

Emily Bobrow is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Review section, where she writes the weekly profile column Weekend Confidential. Previously, she worked as a staff editor and writer at The Economist, covering culture, politics and policy in New York, London and Washington, D.C. She has contributed features and reviews to the New York Times Magazine, NewYorker.com, The Economist’s 1843 and The Atlantic, among other publications.

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