Behind the Broadcast: Ebersol was truly a media visionary

It’s been just over a week since the stunning announcement that Dick Ebersol resigned as NBC Sports

It’s been just over a week since the stunning announcement that Dick Ebersol resigned as NBC Sports Group chairman, abruptly ending a nearly 40-year career in television.

A contract dispute with his new bosses at Comcast, which merged with NBC Universal earlier this year, paved the way for Ebersol’s departure. It was a sad way to see such a great career come to an end.

It was an outstanding career for Ebersol, and TV viewers should be profusely thanking him for changing the landscape of sports tel­evision.

Think about it. He turned NBC Sports into the channel to watch for the Olympics. The NBA’s popularity, which was on the way up in the 1980s on CBS with Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, exploded in the 1990s on NBC, thanks in large part to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

After losing the AFC portion of the NFL contract to CBS in the late 1990s, Ebersol oversaw the return of the league to the network with “Sunday Night Football” in 2006. It has been a prime-time ratings success. Ebersol turned college football on its ear in 1991 when he signed a deal with Notre Dame to televise all of its home games.

Ebersol should also be credited with making the NHL a viable TV product. After the end of the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season, the league signed a deal with NBC. There were no rights fees involved. It was a revenue-sharing agreement. The deal was criticized because there wasn’t a rights fee. But the league, thanks to some rules changes, slowly gained in popularity.

Last month, in what turned out to be Ebersol’s final shining moment, he signed a 10-year, $2 billion deal to keep the NHL on the NBC Sports Groups, which includes cable channel Versus. And, starting next season, all Stanley Cup playoff games will be on numerous NBC cable channels.

And don’t think Ebersol’s influence was limited to sports. He was one of the creators of “Saturday Night Live.” He served as exec­utive producer in the early 1980s, getting the show back on its feet after the departure of the show’s original stars like Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. With new talent like Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the show was fun to watch again.

There were some misses for Ebersol. Probably the most mem­orable one was the ill-fated one-year run of the XFL, which was the mastermind of WWE chairman Vince McMahon, in 2001. But we’ll forgive Ebersol for that mistake.

Mark Lazarus, president of the NBC Sports Cable Group, will become the new chairman of the NBC Sports Group. And he will have a difficult task in replacing Ebersol. NBC will be bidding for Olympics broadcast rights of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. NBC lost more than

$200 million on the 2010 Winter Game in Vancouver, thanks mostly to the poor economy. Is Comcast willing to bid billions on Olympic Games that will be contested far from the United States, particularly from Russia? Who knows.

But Ebersol won’t have to worry about that. He can ride into the sunset, knowing that he had a big influence on how we watch sports on TV.

weekend picks

The Memorial Day weekend is under way, and many of you have plans to have cookouts. You should bring your TV with you, because there are plenty of sporting events to watch.

Here are my picks.

u Let’s start with the traditional Memorial Day weekend auto races. ABC10 and ABC10 HD will have the Indianapolis 500 at noon (it will also be on the radio on WVKZ-AM 1240). At 5:30 p.m., the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 will be on FOX23 and FOX23 HD. If you are a ded­icated auto racing fan, you may want to get up early to watch the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix at 7:30 a.m. Sunday on Speed and Speed HD.

u Time Warner Cable Sports channel 3 will televise Game 2 of the AHL Calder Cup final between the Binghamton Senators and the Houston Aeros tonight at 8:30.

u The NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament final four is on the ESPN networks. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will have today’s semifinals. Game 1 pits Virginia against Denver at

4 p.m., while Duke takes on Maryland at 6:30 p.m. ESPN and ESPN HD will have the championship game at 3:30 p.m. Monday.

u FOX23 and FOX23 HD will have the New York Mets against the Philadelphia Phillies at 7 tonight. I’ll be at the game, so I will wave to everyone. CW15 and CW15 HD will have Sunday’s game at 1 p.m.

u Speaking of FOX23, it will tel­evise the UEFA Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United today at 2 p.m.

u YES and YES HD will have the New York Yankees-Seattle Mariners games tonight at 10 and Sunday at 4 p.m.

u NBC13 and NBC13 will have coverage of the French Open, tennis’ second major, at noon today and Sunday.

u The final two rounds of the Senior PGA Championship will be on NBC13 and NBC13 HD today and Sunday at 3 p.m.

u TBS and TBS HD has the Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers at 1 p.m. Sunday.

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