Dick Ebersol’s Last Stand?

While it’s a dead certainty that the Comcast-NBCU mashup will look to topple ESPN from atop the sports-media heap, it’s less clear as to who will be calling the plays as negotiations begin for the NHL and Olympic broadcast rights.

As chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, Dick Ebersol has compiled the network’s playbook for the last 21 years. The 63-year-old has produced eight of the 10 most-watched sporting events in history and established NBC as home base for the Summer and Winter Games going back to 1992. Now, after a number of false starts, the International Olympic Committee said it is prepared to begin negotiating a deal for the 2014 and 2016 Games, and Ebersol is well-positioned to outbid his rivals.

These Olympic talks may come to be remembered as Ebersol’s last stand. While NBC is certain to send him to Lausanne, it’s anyone’s guess if Comcast will retain Ebersol’s services after his contract expires in 2012.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is unlikely to countenance Ebersol’s big-spending ways. NBC coughed up $820 million for the TV rights to the Vancouver Games, a 35 percent premium over its investment in the ’06 Winter Games.

“Roberts is a pragmatist. He’ll spend if he thinks he’s getting a good deal, but he’s never going to pull a Rupert Murdoch,” said one network sports chief, referring to News Corp.’s $1.6 billion bid to strip CBS of its NFC rights in 1993.

If Comcast elects to replace Ebersol, it won’t be with Jeff Shell. Insiders say there are no plans to give the president of the company’s programming unit oversight of the combined sports properties.