NBC: The Road to 'Tap City.' (National Broadcasting Corp. Loses Rights to Broadcast National Football League Games)

By Turner, Richard | Newsweek, January 26, 1998 | Go to article overview

NBC: The Road to 'Tap City.' (National Broadcasting Corp. Loses Rights to Broadcast National Football League Games)


Turner, Richard, Newsweek


The behind-the-scenes story of how the network s sports czar, Dick Ebersol, let football get away.

THE 5OTH - BIRTHDAY PARTY LAST September for Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, had no shortage of the over-the-top showmanship the TV business tends to favor. Ebersol's wife, the actress Susan Saint James, rented a supper club off Broadway for 300 guests. Filing in behind the velvet rope were the commissioners of the four major sports, including NFL chief Paul Tagliabue. Conan O'Brien's house band jammed inside. Jack Welch, chairman of NBC parent company General Electric, sat next to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, one of the three men on the committee who would decide within the next few months which of the four networks would wind up with rights to air the NFL for the next eight years. Since the last round of such talks had devastated the fortunes of CBS and reinvented Fox, the stakes in the media industry were beyond imagining already, as Ebersol tells it, he was receiving signals that the money his competitors were getting ready to offer would be beyond imagining, too.

Ebersol was accustomed to winning such negotiations. Indeed, in recent years he'd been toasted for his daring, pre-emptive bids, spending billions to wrap up six of seven Olympics through 2008. He had the NBA, post season baseball, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and much of the PGA Tour. Ebersol's sports dominance had helped NBC become the No. 1 network in practically every area of television. But Eborsol already had a sinking feeling about football.

At the party, the Olympic mascot Izzy danced until the costume broke open and out popped gymnast Kerri Strug. Muhammad Ali wielded an Olympic torch. Ebersol basked in the acclaim, and several speakers called him "the most powerful man in sports," as The Sporting News had named him But he was also overcome by a bittersweet feeling that in fact he had no power at all. "I'm sitting there thinking, I have to make a rights deal-for football, and I have no leverage." Football had changed, Ebersol believed, since the days when Commissioner Pete Rozelle used to take the network chieftains to lunch at "21" and tell them what they were going to pay- always below what he knew their advertising revenue would be, so they'd mire a tidy profit. A new group of owners had the power now, owners who often had paid nine-figure sums for their teams The upcoming negotiations were going to be unsentimental.

Ebersol had been spending the past year building relationships with the three key owners. He dined with Jones at his estate on Turtle Creek in Dallas. He flew to Boston to meet with Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots. Kraft and Pat Bowlen, the Denver Broncos owner who was the third member of the troika, were NBC's guests at the Atlanta Olympics. Last August Ebersol played a trump card. When the Patriots were hosting an exhibition game against Denver, GE helicopters were dispatched to Cape Cod to pick up Kraft, to Boston to fetch Bowlen and his wife and to Nantucket to pick up Welch and NBC chief executive Robert Wright. They were flown to Martha's Vineyard, then whisked to Ebersol's house overlooking Edgartown Harbor. At dinner the owners eagerly listened to economic wisdom from Welch, who runs the most valuable company in the United States.

Ebersol had no idea if this was going to do any good. The previous December at a Patriots game, Kraft had told him CBS was definitely going to be a serious player. Even though CBS executives had been making cautious statements about trying to get back into football, they needed to send a message about their rebuilding efforts. Ebersol figured CBS had to be going after either ABC's "Monday Night Football" or his own AFC package. It would never win back the NFC because a bidding war with Rupert Murdoch would be suicide.

Ebersol thought Monday night made sense for CBS because its audience is older than the other networks', and therefore less coveted by advertisers. …

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