When you wander into Dick Ebersol's office on the 15th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan—as I did last Thursday morning to interview him about golf coverage on television—the first thing you see is a glass case in which a couple dozen Emmy Awards are scattered about. Somewhere in the blur of gold wings is the Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, at the 2009 Sports Emmys by Muhammad Ali.
This is an article from the May 30, 2011 issue
The arrow that lit the torch at the Barcelona Olympics is on one wall. There are photographs everywhere, some of celebrities but mostly family. There are pictures of Ebersol and his wife, the actress Susan Saint James, with their children in various vacation poses. There are others of his son Teddy, forever 14, who died in the plane crash in 2004 that almost killed Ebersol.
There are televisions, of course. One, on the wall by the couch, is roughly the size of a Buick LeSabre. Three smaller TVs line the same wall. To observe Ebersol watch television is, in many ways, as thrilling as the games themselves. He seems to see five things at once. "If you wandered into the control room at the Olympics when everything was going full force," his friend Bob Costas says, "your head would explode."
Every bookstore in America is crowded with books that have Last on the cover. The Last Hero. The Last Coach. The Last Season. The Last Boy. The Last Lion. It's always tempting to say, We will never see anything like this again. But we did lose something last Thursday when Dick Ebersol excused himself from our talk, walked upstairs to see his boss Steve Burke and resigned after 22 years of running the network's sports division.
"He was a giant," Costas said on Saturday, and that's a good word. When Ebersol stepped away, we may have seen the last giant of network television sports.
Ebersol's credits overwhelm. He cocreated Saturday Night Live with Lorne Michaels. He was the driving force behind the ascendance of Sunday Night Football. Ebersol produced eight of the 10 most watched events in U.S. television history. He claimed to have quit over money. His friends don't believe it and say there must be more to Ebersol's decision. "Dick has more money than he knows what to do with," one said.
When Ebersol returned to what would soon no longer be his office and sat back on what would no longer be his couch, he talked about his time in television and seemed to hint at deeper reasons for his resignation. "The most important thing to me," he said, "was to tell stories." He had left Yale temporarily in 1967 to learn the medium from iconic ABC producer Roone Arledge, and while there were a million lessons, that was the big one: Tell stories. Bring people closer to the games. Give them a reason beyond the score to care about the players and coaches.
And, Ebersol says fiercely, television seems to be turning away from that. "I think Dick saw his role as 75 percent creative and 25 percent business," another longtime friend, Al Michaels, says. "And I think things were changing so that [the ratio] was going to be the other way around."
In other words, there may be fewer chances to tell sports stories. Cable television has pulled audiences apart. Everything is fragmented. Ebersol gripes that while there are still great sports on television, its announcers make radio calls, shouting about every play. The highlight shows have become nightclub acts. "How are we supposed to know what's important?" he asks.
Ebersol's gift was making events feel important. "It's show business," Al Michaels says. "Dick always understood that."
There were those who thought his broadcasts were too soft, his relationships with leagues and governing bodies too chummy. There were those who criticized his decision to broadcast Olympic events on tape delay. And so on. Ebersol doesn't apologize. He says that the Olympics have become the No. 1 family entertainment, and that there is not much family entertainment to be found anywhere on television. He says he used tape delay so that he could reach the biggest audiences.
On relationships, he says, "It's a relationship business." In Beijing, he persuaded the IOC to have Michael Phelps's races run in the morning, so he could show them live in prime time in the U.S. For Sunday Night Football he lobbied the NFL for great games, including the now famous "flex scheduling," that allows NBC to take its pick of premium matchups late in the year. SNF became the first sports program to be the No. 1 primetime show on television.
His career was bracketed by huge triumphs and massive defeats. An experiment with a pro football league called the XFL failed miserably. But more Americans watched his Beijing Olympics than any event in history. "Dick took chances," Michaels says. "I don't know who will take those chances now."
It's likely no one will. Around NBC on Thursday, there were tears. Elsewhere, people wondered, What will sports on television look like without Ebersol? It will undoubtedly look bigger in some ways—more coverage, more hype, more one-liners, more analysis, more camera angles. But with Ebersol gone, it will look a lot smaller too.
Listen to Joe Posnanski's podcast (this week's guest is Parks and Recreation cocreator Michael Schur) at si.com/poscast