The core of Dick Ebersol’s success: Building relationships

Dick Ebersol was one of the most accessible executives in any realm, sports or otherwise, during his tenure as head of NBC Sports. He knew the importance of the media. However, more than that, he genuinely liked to talk to anyone who was interested in the business.

Ebersol, though, has taken a decidedly low profile since leaving the spotlight. He feels it is someone else’s turn.

That’s why it is great to see Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal run a package of stories on Ebersol in advance of him being awarded its Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 Sports Business Awards.

John Ourand did a profile of Ebersol that gets to the core of his success: Building relationships. Everyone has a story about dealing with Ebersol. Here’s mine:

In August, 2008, I took a buyout from the Chicago Tribune. One day, my phone rings and it is Ebersol calling from Beijing, where he was immersed in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Even though he was way beyond busy, he wanted to take a minute to acknowledge my coverage of NBC and sports media and to wish me well in future endeavors. The call was much appreciated and speaks to Ebersol as a person.

There’s more from Ourand.

Ebersol was a demanding boss — a hardcore negotiator who inspired fear among people who were not part of his inner circle — but his closest friends use words to describe their friendship with Ebersol that they would use to describe their marriage: love, loyalty, affection.

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern describes their first meeting as “love at first sight.” Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who still sees Ebersol a few times a year, says, “I cannot tell you my enormous affection and respect for him.” Even Vince McMahon, the rugged chairman and CEO of WWE who first met Ebersol in the mid-1980s, sounds smitten when talking about Ebersol. “I just love the guy,” McMahon says. “It’s funny when men say that about other men. But he’s the kind of guy you can say that about.”

These types of comments don’t surprise anyone who has spent time with Ebersol. Former colleagues and clients say the bulk of Ebersol’s conversations never had anything to do with business. Instead, Ebersol takes the time to learn about what makes people tick and has the ability to retain much of that information for future conversations, according to nearly everyone interviewed for this story.

“The foundation of all of those relationships had little to do with his business accomplishments,” said longtime NBC Sports colleague Ken Schanzer. “The bulk of the time we spent together was talking about all of the things that make the rest of your life meaningful. I suspect that is the baseline of most of his relationships.”

Ourand also has a passage on the ill-fated XFL and how it still had an impact in coverage of the NFL.

Ebersol embraces his mistakes, and the bonds that were formed while making them. Fourteen years after the XFL launched its first and only season, Ebersol still beams when he talks about the league, which he calls “a fantastic failure.” As with many failures, the XFL spawned innovations that still are being used today.

Ebersol mentioned Skycam, which was popularized during NBC’s telecast of XFL games. He recalls hearing that a former NFL executive, the late Val Pinchbeck, said at the time that the NFL would never allow cameras over or onto the field. A few short years later, of course, it did.

Like Ebersol, other executives who were with NBC at the time also remember the XFL’s “fantastic failure” warmly.

“One of the things that I’ve learned from Dick is that you don’t always win,” said Zaslav, who first worked with Ebersol in the mid-’90s. “With the XFL, he put it all out there. That was unbelievably ambitious. He fought like hell. He gave a big part of his heart and soul and sweat and life to it — along with a whole bunch of the sports team. Dick’s proud of that. That’s what life’s about. Everything doesn’t work. It was a great swing. We all loved it. We all had the [XFL] hats. We all were rooting for Dick. But it didn’t work out.”

McMahon said one of the things he most remembers about the XFL is the amount of fun he had doing it with Ebersol, even as the league was going down the tubes. “It was certainly worth the gamble on both our parts,” McMahon said. “It would have been huge if it took off.”

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