A day after a newspaper reported that Dick Ebersol was on thin ice with his new bosses, the TV sports veteran scored a hat trick, securing a new deal with the National Hockey League that promises to give NBCUniversal more leverage as it prepares its Olympics bid.
Marking Ebersol’s first major sports rights deal since the consummation of the Comcast-NBCU marriage, the 10-year, $2 billion NHL pact can be seen as a dry run for the network's quest to land the rights for the 2014 Winter and 2016 Summer Games in Sochi, Russia, and Rio de Janeiro, respectively.
It certainly should go a long way toward ensuring that Sochi’s biggest attraction will be bolstered by a full contingent of NHL talent. League commissioner Gary Bettman has said the benefits of global brand exposure don't offset the revenue losses associated with the 15-day NHL shutdown necessitated when its players participate in the games' hockey tournament. With the new rights deal in hand, Bettman is likely to change his tune. Already chummy with the International Olympic Committee, anything Ebersol can do to persuade Bettman to join the party in Sochi can only bolster his standing with Lausanne.
That influence is considerable. Before the 2008 Beijing Games, Ebersol convinced the IOC to shuffle the men’s swimming schedules, ensuring that Michael Phelps' heroics would be shown live in prime time on the East Coast. Eight gold medals later, NBC’s ratings were stratospheric.
While CEO Steve Burke has made intimations of belt-tightening, Ebersol last week suggested he's free to pursue any deal so long as it brings in revenue. "I don’t believe I'm ever going to be let out of the building unless we can show them we’re going to make money," Ebersol says.
Last month, the IOC held meetings with the brass from the five contenders for the rights to Sochi and Rio (NBC, Fox, ESPN, CBS, and Turner Sports). In order to avoid interfering with broadcast's upfront week (May 16-19), the IOC has agreed to push back bidding for the package to early June.
Ebersol overbid for the 2010 and 2012 Olympics, to the tune of $2 billion, and NBCU lost $220 million on the former in Vancouver. Despite the misstep, Comcast should still back a bid if he can demonstrate how he’ll spin gold from the global sports spectacle. "All the competition will jack up the asking price, and that could make the Comcast guys a little squirrelly," says one network sports exec. "But this isn't Dick's first tight spot. He can be pretty convincing when he has to be."