Dick Ebersol

NBC's $4.38 billion knockout punch

There's an old maxim in boxing. If you want to beat the champ, you have to knock him out. That's pretty much the way it was always going to play out when it came to the contest for the U.S. broadcast rights for the coming editions of the Olympic Games, which the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday awarded to NBC -- a $4.38 billion deal that stretches through the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Games.

Fox was in the game. The ESPN/ABC combination was, too.

Even so, NBC, which has televised every Summer Olympics in the United States since 1988, every Winter Games since 2002, was always the favorite, despite the resignation May 19 of Dick Ebersol. This process was always bigger than one man, no matter how towering a figure.

Eight years ago, the last time this process played out, NBC agreed to pay $2 billion for the rights to the 2010 and 2012 Games. A General Electric sponsorship bumped the full package up to $2.2 billion. That time around, Fox bid $1.3 billion. ESPN offered to share revenues with the IOC but never specified dollar figures.

This time, NBC swung the knockout punch -- again.

ESPN opted to bid only for the 2014 and 2016 Games. According to Associated Press and Sports Business Daily, it offered $1.4 billion.

Fox put in a bid for 2014/16 and, as well, for 2018/20. Its two-Games bid was $1.5 billion, its four-Games bid $3.4 billion, AP and SBD reported.

NBC went big, for four Games and $4.38 billion.

What else did you expect?

As IOC president Jacques Rogge put it in a news conference Tuesday, referring to NBC, "I can say really that the Olympics are in their DNA."

The IOC, like any institution, has a comfort zone. With NBC, the IOC has enjoyed growth, prosperity and -- under Rogge's direction in particular -- financial security. While it might well have achieved those things in partnership with other networks, the fact is it is NBC that has been there through the ups, the downs, the Salt Lake scandal -- everything.

This deal anchors the IOC's finances through 2020. It figures to do the same for the U.S. Olympic Committee, which now gets 12.75 percent of the U.S. rights fee. The USOC and IOC are currently in active negotiations over the USOC's broadcast and marketing rights shares, Rogge saying the new NBC deal figures to be a "positive factor" in those talks.

Here are the numbers: NBC will pay $775 million for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia and $1.226 billion for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

It will pay $963 million for the 2018 Winter Games and $1.418 billion for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Neither the 2018 nor 2020 site has been decided. The IOC will pick the 2018 city on July 6. Three cities are in that 2018 race: Munich; Annecy, France; and Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The IOC still hopes to reach a separate extension of the GE sponsorship, officials said Tuesday.

The IOC's relationships with NBC, beyond Ebersol, run deep indeed.

To be clear: The IOC did not structure the process so that NBC could win. Hardly. The bids were what they were. The IOC didn't tell anyone what to offer.

Nonetheless: If it was the case that the process was delayed so that there could be signs of life amid the global economic downturn, wasn't it also patently obvious that the auction was pushed back so that the Comcast/NBC merger could be fully completed?

Wasn't it equally obvious when the IOC went around dropping hints that a four-Games package would be welcomed? All those hints came after NBC lost $223 million in Vancouver. A four-Games package clearly would enable bidders for the next package to amortize costs over a longer term.

Brian Roberts, the Comcast chairman, said in that same news conference that the longer term was "strategically important" and of "great value to us." He said Comcast expects to make money on the $4.38 billion deal, calling the company's position "very comfortable."

Roberts added, "We said all along we were going to take a disciplined approach were we would have a path to profitability. By having a longer term, we were able to come out and achieve that goal."

It's far too facile, meanwhile, to say that Tuesday's deal is only about the money. To know even the first thing about the IOC and its culture is to know that.

So what else?

The IOC is actively trying to engage with young people. It last year launched a Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. It has a lively Facebook site.

NBC's deal gives it the rights to television, tablets, mobile phones, broadband -- to every platform now known or to be conceived, as Mark Lazarus, the new chairman of the NBC Sports Group, put it in that same news conference. "That's part of the value for our new company, to bring the Games to more people across more platforms," he said.

For years, the knock on NBC was that it held the good stuff back and showed it only in prime-time.

Fox and ESPN made clear they would show events live. But everyone knew NBC would be doing so, too -- that was one of the main benefits of the Comcast merger. Before, NBC had to rely on prime-time advertising sales. Now there would be considerably less financial pressure because of the added revenue stream from cable sub-fees.

Starting in 2014, Lazarus said, NBC would make every event available live, on one platform or another. Of course, the best stuff presumably will be shown again, in prime-time. Prime-time still draws families together before the big screen; that remains one of the main lures for sponsors.

Beyond that, what the Olympics are about -- what makes them different from every other property -- is story-telling. That's what Roone Arledge understood at ABC, when the Olympics first became a television event in the United States, when screens showed only black-and-white grainy pictures.

Story-telling is Ebersol's passion.

That passion has been passed on to the NBC team. It's the DNA thing Rogge talked of. It was at the core of the message delivered Tuesday to the IOC in a presentation that included Bob Costas and that, by all accounts, was simply first-rate.

"We were blown away by the presentation," Richard Carrion, the IOC's lead negotiator, said. "The passion [the NBC team] had for the Olympic Games was very impressive and very evident to all of us. They know -- they have been doing this for quite a while. We knew that they know what this is about. They know the values that are important to all of us. It was a combination of all those things.

"… We are happy to renew it."

Dick Ebersol's stunning resignation

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Dick Ebersol's abrupt resignation Thursday as head of NBC Sports is altogether unexpected and, frankly, not. It's also, for those of us who know him, respect him immensely, worked for him and with him, profoundly unsettling. Sad, even.

It raises a whole host of questions -- without immediate answers -- about the London 2012 Olympics, which NBC will televise, and beyond, whether NBC, now merged with Comcast, will aggressively bid for the rights to the 2014 and 2016 Games.

The International Olympic Committee has said it will call American bidders here, to Lausanne, the IOC's headquarters, just 18 days from now, on June 6 and 7, for the 2014 and 2016 auction. The rights to the 2018 and 2020 Games might also be in play. Besides NBC, ESPN and Fox are expected to bid.

The announcement Thursday changes everything.

Or maybe not.

It can be argued that Ebersol is the most important Olympic figure in the United States.

NBC has televised every Summer Games to American homes since 1988; it has broadcast every Winter Games since 2002.

Since he was a teen-ager, the Olympics have been an Ebersol passion. He temporarily  dropped out of Yale to become ABC Sports' first-ever Olympic researcher; that was before the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France.

He had been with NBC since 1989.

In an internal call Thursday with NBC employees, he spoke about walking the halls of the network offices, at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, for more than 20 years. He said he would miss that.

I was a full-time NBC employee for four years -- from 2006 to 2010 -- and a part-time employee for three years before that. I wasn't based at 30 Rock in New York. Even so, the culture that Ebersol created at NBC Sports was everywhere NBC Sports was. He had one hard-and-fast rule: no jerks.

Television and, later, the internet were hard enough and pressure-filled enough without people being jerks to each other. So no jerks.

That was the very best part about working at NBC.

Assuredly, the senior executives who will show up at NBC Sports on Friday morning, just as they did on Thursday, are remarkably talented. Without question, the bid they're going to put together for future editions of the Games is going to be significant.

But without Ebersol, will it be enough?

Canadian IOC member Dick Pound, who in the mid-1990s engineered deals that swung the rights to NBC for multiple editions of the Games, said, "If they come without Ebersol, I guess they just come with a wallet."

NBC and Comcast executives called IOC president Jacques Rogge -- he took the call at 7:20 p.m. here local time -- to assure him that they still fully support the Olympic movement and intend to bid aggressively.

They said the timing of Ebersol's resignation had "nothing to do with the bidding for the Games," Rogge said in a brief interview in a hallway at the Palace Hotel, where the IOC's marketing commission was holding a dinner.

It was a "purely internal issue and Dick took a decision -- and we have to respect it," he said.

That said, Rogge allowed, Ebersol's announcement "was a shock for me."

Perhaps most tellingly, in a culture in which relationships traditionally are everything, Ebersol did not call Rogge in advance of the news breaking out to tell him about the resignation.

Rogge, for his part, said he had already sent Ebersol a letter. But he said Thursday evening -- this was halfway through that marketing commission dinner, which he stepped out of to say a few words to me and to Steve Wilson of the Associated Press -- that he had still not spoken to Ebersol.

Similarly, Ebersol -- who had been a hugely vocal critic of the U.S. Olympic Committee in October, 2009 -- had over the past several months recognized its new leadership, chief executive Scott Blackmun and chairman Larry Probst, with warm words.  Better yet, the USOC and NBC have been doing real business together in recent months.

In that same Palace Hotel hallway Thursday evening, here was Blackmun, standing next to Rogge. He said he had "no inkling" Ebersol was leaving.

"I'm sad," Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico, the IOC's current lead U.S. television rights negotiator, said later Thursday night in the Palace lobby. "I admire him on a professional and personal level."

The fact is, earlier this week Ebersol was still making plans for business calls early next week.

It makes you wonder whether the Ebersol rupture with Comcast transpired with violent speed or just had been a long time coming.

This, too, is true about Ebersol. If he was in charge of something, it was the case that you were going to be doing it his way. Nothing wrong with that.

That said, I don't know if that way is the Comcast way.

I do know this: They're going to be holding the Summer Olympics in London in just a little over 14 months, and Dick Ebersol is not going to be in charge of the NBC broadcast, and that seems almost impossible to comprehend.

"He'll be at the Games," Rogge said. "I'll invite him."

Fun at the ol' USOC

The U.S. Olympic Committee's two-day board of directors meeting in Atlanta wrapped up Tuesday, and what was notable was not that it produced any big news -- none was expected -- but that it was, as new board member Dave Ogrean put it, well, "fun." "Fun" is not a word that has not often in recent years been associated with USOC precincts.

Then again, as has been observed repeatedly in this space over the past 15 months, since board chairman Larry Probst hired Scott Blackmun to be the chief executive officer, this is indeed a new USOC.

Ogrean, who has pretty much seen and done it all in an extensive career that has traversed the American Olympic stage and who is currently the executive director of USA Hockey, said in a conference call with reporters, referring to the USOC's management and, as well, its outlook, "I think things are in better shape today than they [have been] in a decade."

It is perhaps the nature of what's now to suffer some amnesia when recalling what has come before. So let us not so easily dismiss the domestic stability that Peter Ueberroth and Jim Scherr brought through the Athens and Beijing Olympics; that stability was much needed after the wholesale convulsions and governance reforms that immediately preceded their tenures.

Then, though, came Stephanie Streeter, who as USOC chief executive showed that she knew of the intricacies of the international Olympic movement about what you'd expect from someone who had run a printing company. Like -- what?

And then came the debacle of the aborted USOC television network.

And then, worse, Chicago's beat-down in the first round of the 2009 International Olympic Committee vote at which Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Summer Games -- the president of the United States summoned to the scene in Copenhagen just before the vote, and for what? For Chicago, his hometown, to win just 18 votes?

None of that could in the least be described as "fun."

Of all the things they have done, Blackmun and Probst have spent considerable time and effort working at the one thing that counts more than anything else in the Olympic scene -- relationship-building.

Last September,  Dick Ebersol, his title now chairman of NBC Sports Group, appeared in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the annual USOC assembly, with words of praise for both Probst and Blackmun.

News item, Feb. 17: Online broker TD Ameritrade Holding Co. agrees to sponsor the U.S. Olympic team through the 2012 Games, the deal marking the first-ever USOC sponsorship in the online broker category as well as the first collaboration with NBC, which will receive a commitment for a certain level of media buys from TD Ameritrade, according to the USOC. Terms were not disclosed.

News item,  March 10: NBC and the USOC sign Citi as an official bank partner of the network and the 2012 U.S. team. The USOC had been without an "official bank" since Bank of America had bowed out in 2009. The USOC's chief marketing officer, Lisa Baird, tells the Sports Business Daily of the novel deal, "Partners are responding to the integrated marketing and media package. We're proud of both of these coming on and doing so in quick time is evidence this is working.”

Disclosure: I am a former NBC employee.

More: I had no idea any of these deals were coming and I have zero idea if any other USOC contracts are coming.

But I can put two and two together, and I know this: whether or not Ebersol was in the least bit involved in any of this deal-making or not, the fact is that the climate between NBC and the USOC is totally, totally different than it was not all that long ago.

Here, from October, 2009, was Ebersol, to the Washington Post: "IOC members 'don't hate America, they hate the USOC, and with good reason. Congress doesn't need to do any new reform. The USOC just needs new leadership.' "

And here, just a couple days ago, after the announcement that Probst and Blackmun had been appointed to IOC committees, was Ebersol, in the New York Times: "This is exciting news for all of us involved with the Olympic movement in the United States. It is clear evidence that the re-energized and clearly focused USOC under Larry and Scott is being recognized not only by the IOC but by the entire international Olympic community."

To be sure, the USOC in March 2011 still faces significant challenges.

It must yet strike a deal with the IOC to resolve a longstanding revenue dispute. Talks are ongoing, and Probst said Tuesday, without providing any details, that he and other senior USOC officials are "encouraged by the tone of the discussions."

A U.S. television rights deal for 2014 and 2016, and perhaps beyond, is now at issue. That deal is the key to the IOC's financial well-being. Meanwhile, how it plays out -- and for a variety of reasons it is almost sure to play out in the near term,before July -- is central to perceptions of the USOC in IOC circles, and certain to be a key factor in whether and when the USOC gets back into the bid game.

A whole host of other concerns are also up for discussion. Just to pick a couple:

For funding purposes, how best to determine which national governing bodies are more or less likely to reach or sustain "sustained competitive excellence," to use USOC lingo?

Are there security-related concerns beyond the usual at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico?

Such matters were on the table Tuesday in Atlanta for the board, which now totals 15, and the new members: Ogrean; former Visa executive Susanne Lyons; Nina Kemppel, a cross-country skier who raced in four Winter Games; former John Hancock chief executive James Benson; and former Microsoft executive Robbie Bach.

"These are talented people and they are not wallflowers," Blackmun said.

Probst echoed, "They were happy to speak up -- to share their opinions."

Ogrean said the dialogue was "always civil," a point that, again, could not always be said to be the case with the USOC. He said, "It was, quite frankly, fun."

A most excellent first year

The U.S. Olympic Committee's announcement Tuesday of the addition of five genuinely impressive new directors to its board caps a remarkable year. All five would seem to be incredibly constructive additions. They promise to bring not only breadth, depth, institutional experience and even ingenuity to the board. The newcomers include the likes of Robbie Bach, the former president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, as well as Dave Ogrean, who over 30 years has seemingly seen and done it all in American Olympic circles and is now executive director of USA Hockey.

That the USOC, which for most of its own 32-year history has been wracked by dissension and dysfunction, could identify and recruit five all-stars for its board is testament to -- hold on here, this is gotcha kind of stuff -- process and structure.

Don't be bored. Process and structure are the product of leadership.

And, in the persons of Larry Probst, the USOC chairman, and Scott Blackmun, the chief executive, the USOC can be said to have real leadership.

It's a year, more or less, since Blackmun took over the job -- that is, since Probst hired him.



Before the USOC board convenes Thursday in Redwood City, Calif., for the meeting at which the five new members will be formally approved, it's worth taking a moment to review the year that was.

And if you allow again for a slight elasticity in the calendar, there's a powerfully symbolic way to show how far things have come, and there's an easy way to explain how and why things have indeed come so far.

Scene one: It's Copenhagen, October 2009. Chicago has just gotten booted in the first round of voting for the 2016 Summer Games despite the personal plea to the International Olympic Committee by the president of the United States of America.

Scene two: The 21 Club in New York, earlier this month. The USOC awards its first Simon Award -- named for William E. Simon, a former USOC president -- to Dan Doctoroff, the head of the New York 2012 bid, and to Pat Ryan, head of the Chicago 2016 bid. Eminently deserved, and the delightful thing is that both would accept.

That, in large measure, is because of the current USOC leadership.

And here is the secret to that leadership:

Probst is not -- repeat, not -- an all-seeing, all-knowing, Oz-like chairman. He hired Blackmun to run the USOC and, in fact, Blackmun runs it.

That is, Probst and the board set policy. Day-to-day, Blackmun runs the place.

Because Probst allows him to act as a chief executive, Blackmun actually can get things get done. And what he has gotten done is truly impressive.

Here is a partial list of Blackmun's accomplishments this year. Again, this is not -- repeat, not -- an A-to-Z list of every accomplishment:

-- Major sponsor deals with Proctor & Gamble and BMW, and in this economic climate.

-- Repairing and recasting of relationships with national governing body officials.

-- Splitting sport performance into its two logical subsets, facilities and high-performance.

-- Driving long-term strategic vision. It's all there in the board minutes, which are posted online.

-- That the board minutes are online is evidence of the open, accessible and transparent culture the USOC is trying to foster. In the same way that Probst empowers Blackmun, Blackmun lets communications chief Pat Sandusky do his thing.

-- Repairing and reframing of the key relationship with NBC. Blackmun and Probst have forged a solid working relationship with NBC Universal Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol, who had been a strident USOC critic in late 2009 but appeared at the USOC assembly in September, 2010, to offer praise. Blackmun also has worked with NBC to jointly sell the banking category,  an unprecedented marketing partnership.

-- $18 million deal with the IOC for so-called "Games costs" that sets the table for negotiation and potential resolution of longstanding dispute over marketing and broadcasting revenue splits.

-- Low-key, JFK-esque "ask not what the movement can do for you but what you can do for the movement" approach to the IOC and, for that matter, to international relations.

Nearly once a month Probst or Blackmun has been traveling abroad, or both for that matter, and not just for the Olympic version of a drive-by. Probst hung out at the Assn. of National Olympic Committee meetings in Acapulco in October for a week. Blackmun -- despite having shoulder surgery immediately beforehand -- was there nearly as long.

For anyone's first year on the job, that list makes for a pretty good record of accomplishment.

At the USOC -- it's nothing short of a culture change, and downright historic.

And it's only the first year.

Oh, and by the way -- the U.S. team won a record 37 medals at the Vancouver Olympics this past February.

Bring on 2011.

USOC: 'an exciting new time'

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- After Larry Probst and Scott Blackmun had given first-rate speeches to the hundreds gathered here at the Antlers Hilton hotel for the U.S. Olympic Committee's annual assembly, the two senior USOC officials, with a gaggle of reporters in tow, found a small room just off the big ballroom for an impromptu news conference. This was the Jackson Room, named not for the seventh president but for a 19th-century Colorado photographer. A big wooden table dominated Mr. William Jackson's room. Blackmun took one of the blue chairs on one side of the table, Probst the chair right next to him.

Probst, in his shirt and tie, jacket off, leaned back in the chair, waiting for the first question. The two of them hadn't yet said a word in this little clutch but their body language said everything: relaxed, calm, comfortable, confident, in charge.

What a difference a year makes.

And what buzz around what traditionally has been a lackluster, even dreary, event.

This year, the scene at the assembly and its related programs was marked with energy, enthusiasm and a distinct sense of inclusion, from the opening reception Wednesday (a packed house swarming the bruschetta and the fried shrimp, and how about the support of that Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau!) through the wrap-up meetings Saturday.

The catch phrase that appeared on the literature the USOC distributed here read "one team," and that sentiment seemed to strike home.

One example from among many: Dick Ebersol, the NBC Universal Sports & Olympics chairman who last autumn was a vocal USOC critic, delivered the keynote address Friday night. Probst introduced him as "our good friend and partner."

Another example: Mark Emmert, the incoming NCAA president, made a joint appearance Thursday morning with Blackmun and while they didn't announce any major initiatives, it didn't matter; the point was that the guys in charge of the USOC and NCAA were on stage together.

"I have said this repeatedly: I am more enthusiastic about this organization and this movement today than I have been at any point in the last 10 years," Dave Ogrean, the executive director of USA Hockey, said at a cocktail party Friday night.

"The best presentation I have heard in my 32 years of association with the USOC by its leaders," a former USOC spokesman, Mike Moran, posted on his Facebook page, referring to the Probst and Blackmun speeches to the assembly. "Candid, on the money and substantial."

Donna de Varona, the Olympic swim gold medalist turned sportscaster and women's- and athletes'-rights activist, called the meeting the "most inclusive, visionary and inspirational gathering in the history of the U.S. movement."

A pause: the USOC's history is filled with much-documented starts, stops, missteps and missed opportunities.

One also must note that the success of the moment hardly guarantees anything in the future. See above: USOC starts, stops, missteps, etc.

Even so, this assembly made for a great convention, and it would thus be irresponsible for the reasonable observer not to relate the obvious: There is a renewed sense of optimism and can-do within and around the USOC, and it's primarily because of leadership. That means Probst, the USOC chairman, and Blackmun, the chief executive.

"Larry has not only found his role but his voice," Doug Logan, the outgoing USA Track & Field executive, said in an interview. "And Scott is not only doing the right things and saying the right things but saying them with the right inflection."

From the daïs Friday evening, Ebersol, referring to Probst and Blackmun, said, "Let me say very clearly: congratulations for the start of this incredible turnaround. We are very lucky we have your leadership. And we hope we have it for a very long time."

It was last Oct. 2 that the International Olympic Committee delivered its humiliating verdict on Chicago's 2016 chances -- out, despite the personal lobbying in Copenhagen by President Obama himself, in the first round, with only 18 votes. Later that day, Rio de Janeiro would win going away.

A lot of things that had bubbling for a lot of time led to that vote, which Probst in his speech here Friday called, among other terms, "devastating." Some of it involved the USOC's complex relationship with the IOC. Some of it revolved around the USOC itself.

The criticism and turmoil that ensued afterward produced weeks, indeed months, of reflection and re-engineering -- institutional and, for Probst in particular, personal.

Stephanie Streeter, the USOC's acting chief executive, stepped down; Blackmun, who had been a candidate for the CEO job nearly 10 years ago, got the job this time and said Friday that "in retrospect I am grateful to be standing here now instead of then."

Why? Because then the USOC "wasn't structured to succeed." Now, Blackmun said in his assembly speech, "I am filled with optimism about the future of our American Olympic family, and in particular about the future of the USOC."

In part that's because of Blackmun himself. He is modest and speaks softly. The staff loves him.

In part that's because of Probst. He weathered furious criticism after Copenhagen, then -- as Blackmun put it -- "stepped forward to listen" and learn. As the senior USOC official, and thus its key protocol figure, he has since been traveling the world, meeting with IOC members, with plans in the coming weeks to go to Mexico, Japan, China and Serbia, among others.

"It's a relationship business," Blackmun, who is also a frequent flier, said. "We have to start by being present."

Finally, there's the way Probst and Blackmun work together. To simplify something that by its nature is more complex, indeed laden with nuance: Probst hired Blackmun to be in charge, and Probst lets Blackmun run the USOC.

The two get together by phone every Tuesday morning. Of course they trade emails and make other calls as warranted. "There is a high level of communication between us," Probst said in Mr. Jackson's room, adding, "Having said that, he is the CEO and I have no intention of being the CEO of the USOC."

In his speech, Probst said, "We are being honest and open and present and I believe we are on the right track," and while he was referring specifically to the USOC's international outreach, he could have been speaking of so much more.

Ebersol said, "I knew I was coming here for what is really an exciting new time for the United States Olympic Committee and for the Olympic movement in the United States. Just think: a year ago that would have been unthinkable, absolutely unthinkable."