Dick Ebersol may be the most powerful man in the history of televised sports.
One of the most influential and colorful figures in sports television for the last 45 years, Ebersol rewrote the rules for television sports. He pioneered paying huge broadcast fees for marquee events and introduced Olympic coverage focusing on the human interest story, with a narrative heavy on drama and sentimentality.
A legendary storyteller known for his passion, creativity and execution, Ebersol has served as executive producer for eight Olympic Games. An exceptional marketer, he is a television genius. At 28, he became NBC’s youngest vice president. Ebersol hired Lorne Michaels and, in 1975, the two created Saturday Night Live. He remained executive producer of SNL until 1995, spanning the Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal eras.
Ebersol became president of NBC Sports in 1989, where he created The NBA on NBC. From 1989 to 1991, he also served as senior vice president of NBC News. “Few people in the history of television have made such an impact in so many different areas,” said Bob Costas, whose talk show, Later, ran on NBC from 1988 to 1994. Ebersol is a superstar in not just one field, but three. “I think you can take any area of broadcasting – news, sports or entertainment – and say Dick Ebersol is a leader in that area,” observed John Madden, who spent three decades as the best pro football analyst in television history. “He’s great at everything he does.”
After broadcasting the World Series, Super Bowl, NBA Finals and Summer Olympics in the same television season for the only time in history, The Sporting News, in 1996, ranked Ebersol first on its list of the “100 Most Powerful Men in Sports.” He had been ranked second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh in previous years. By January 1998, NBC had broadcast four Super Bowls in six years.
A brilliant businessman and exceptional marketer, Ebersol has negotiated the rights for NBC to cover the NFL, NBA, MLB, USGA Championships, Notre Dame football, and every Olympic Games since 2000. The Olympics Ebersol has produced account for eight of the top most-watched television events in U.S. history. He possesses, according to former NBA commissioner David Stern, “attention to detail and an intensity that make him unique.” The charismatic Ebersol bid $50,000 at a charity auction in 2003 for the privilege of learning who Carly Simon wrote about in her song, “You’re So Vain” [spoiler alert: it was Warren Beatty].
Ebersol’s childhood hero was boxer Muhammad Ali. An outstanding producer, he orchestrated Ali’s lighting of the torch in 1996 at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics – a spine-tingling television moment.
An entertainment visionary, Ebersol believes sports should be a spectacle. He is responsible for moving the NFL’s prime-time broadcast package from Monday night to Sunday night. First telecast in 2006, NBCs Sunday Night Football introduced flexible scheduling to sports, allowing the network to choose games that are more interesting to fans – and have playoff implications – to air on Sunday night. Since 2011, SNF has been the most-watched program in America.
Duncan Ebersol was born July 28, 1947, in Torrington, Connecticut, about 120 miles northeast of New York City. His father, Charles is the former chairman of the American Cancer Society. At 20, Ebersol temporarily dropped out of Yale to become television’s first Olympic researcher, working for Roone Arledge during ABC Sports coverage of the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. “Roone was far and away the most original thinker I ever met in network television,” said Ebersol decades later. He returned to Yale to complete his junior and senior years, which he did in one year, graduating in 1969.
Ebersol spent six years working in production as Arledge’s executive assistant, contributing to coverage of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and three Olympic Games. “From July 1967 until I left in August 1974,” recalled Ebersol, “I had the best front row 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. The network’s biggest star, Johnny Carson, wanted the weekend repeats of The Tonight Show taken off the air, and NBC needed a replacement show.
Early in his tenure at NBC, Ebersol met a Canadian writer named Lorne Michaels. Along with network president Herb Schlosser, the trio created a late-night variety show and, in October 1975, Saturday Night Live broadcast its first episode. Now in its 44thseason, SNL has received more Primetime Emmy Award nominations than any program in television history.
The hard-charging Ebersol – who suffered a heart attack in 1996 — is married to actress Susan St. James, whom he met on the set of SNL in October 1981, when St. James co-hosted the show . They were married six weeks later. The couple has three children together, Charlie, Willie and Teddy, who died in a plane crash in 2004.
A tall and imposing presence, Ebersol was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 2005, the same year he was enshrined into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Three years later, NBC won the Peabody Award for its coverage of the 2008 Beijing Opening Ceremony. In April 2009, Mr. Ebersol received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award. It was presented by Ali, along with the commissioners of the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, PGA Tour and NASCAR.
This week marks the 18th anniversary of The Sporting News listing Dick Ebersol on its list of the “100 Most Powerful Persons in Sports.”