NBC Sports chief talks Yale, Olympics

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In 1965, Dick Ebersol ’69 was a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. Just two years later, he was working at ABC Sports under Roone Arledge, oftentimes called the father of American sports television.

In the same building in which he had once (rarely) attended class, Ebersol shared stories about his career as a sports television producer — which started while he was an undergraduate at Yale — at the 2008 Kiphuth Fellowship Public Lecture in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall on Thursday afternoon.

Dick Ebersol ’69, the chairman of NBC Sports and Olympics, spoke at SSS yesterday for a Kiphuth Lecture.
Eva Galvan
Dick Ebersol ’69, the chairman of NBC Sports and Olympics, spoke at SSS yesterday for a Kiphuth Lecture.

Ebersol stressed the importance of dedication in order to succeed in his line of work. From his first days on campus, Ebersol already knew that he wanted to pursue his passion for sports, despite a lack of athletic talent.

“I loved sports with every fiber of my body, but I had the hand-eye coordination of a giraffe,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t do one thing, but I knew I liked another, so I looked for ways to be involved in sports on this campus.”

Yet after beginning his career working within Yale’s athletics department, Ebersol soon began to cover sports for The New York Times and Boston Globe as a freelance journalist. His big break came during the spring of his sophomore year, when he found a letter under his door from Arledge. After meeting with Arledge in New York, the 19-year-old Ebersol dropped out of Yale to become television’s first-ever Olympics researcher for the upcoming 1968 Olympic games. Ebersol returned to campus in 1969 to finish his junior and senior years at once. During this time, he attended classes for the first three days of the week and also continued his job working for ABC’s Wide World of Sports during the rest of the week.

It was not your average student job: The gig frequently entailed weekend trips to Europe, Ebersol said.

Students in attendance said Ebersol’s descriptions of job duties as an undergrad were impressive.

“It’s inspiring to hear a guy talk about living here at our age and taking classes where we take class, but still doing all the things that he did,” McKynlee Westman ’11 said.

Ebersol’s job was to present the stories of Olympic athletes beyond their basic information, as per Arledge’s motto, “up close, in person.”

After graduating, the Connecticut native was eventually lured to NBC in 1974 to step away from sports. Ebersol had envisioned a Saturday night comedy show to fill airtime that had previously been occupied by Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. The result — Saturday Night Live — was groundbreaking.

“You had never seen anything like SNL,” said Ebersol, who teamed up with creator Lorne Michaels to launch the show. “It was the first show that talked the same language that people were speaking. It was the first time the younger generation’s language could be heard.”

After the initial cast left, the show struggled. In what he described as one of the two luckiest breaks in his life, Ebersol met and later recruited an 18-year-old extra named Eddie Murphy. The other lucky break, he said, was meeting his wife, Susan St. James.

Ebersol returned to sports in 1989 as the president of NBC Sports, where he helped to develop Sunday Night Football in addition to coverage of the Olympic Games.

His most memorable Olympics were the Games in Beijing this past summer. Although he described the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney as “the most romantic,” network ratings were disappointing. The fiasco prompted Ebersol into action.

When negotiating details for Olympic coverage of the Beijing Games, Ebersol convinced then-International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch to ask the Chinese to push the Olympics forward from late September to August. Ebersol said this move was to prevent scheduling conflicts with sports such as football and to give students the opportunity to stay up to watch television coverage. He pulled further strings by convincing current IOC president Jacques Rogge, who began his tenure in 2001, to change the times of swimming and gymnastics events — the two most popular summer Olympic sports for American viewers — so that West coast audiences could watch the events live during primetime.

In addition to American viewer-friendly scheduling, the accomplishments of swimmer Michael Phelps made the Beijing ratings more successful than Sydney.

“Michael was an incredible magnet that brought many people back to the Olympics, especially young male viewers,” Ebersol said.

The numerous Yale student-athletes in the crowd were also able to gain an insider’s perspective on some of the world’s best athletes — in the same vein as what Wide World of Sports tried to do. Along with tales about Phelps, Ebersol shared anecdotes about the three athletes he considers transcendent in modern American history: Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

Josh Helmrich’09, a football player, said the lecture gave him insight into a career field of interest.

“I’m a senior, so hearing his career path coming from Yale, especially since he is now so high up, was interesting,” Helmrich said.

The Kiphuth Fellowship Fund was established in 1970 in honor of legendary Yale swimming coach Bob Kiphuth, who had a 528-12 record and won five national championships during his 41 years as a coach at Yale.

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