Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


FAREWELL TO ANOTHER UN-FRIEND OF SOCCER IN THE U.S.

Dick Ebersol resigned as chairman of the NBC Sports Group, capping a 22-year reign in which he made the Peacock network synonymous with the Olympics.

Ebersol spent more than 40 years at NBC, overseeing every summer and winter Olympics since 1992.  According to the New York Times, “Over the past 22 years, Ebersol acquired, then dropped, NBA rights; retained, did not renew, then re-acquired NFL contracts (NBC carries Sunday night games); ventured into a partnership with World Wrestling Entertainment to create the XFL, a bizarre, money-losing football league; brought Major League Baseball back to NBC, then got out; and became a prominent member of the Olympic movement.”

He steps down after being unable to reach agreement on a new contract with Comcast, which merged with NBC in January. [May 19]

Comment:  So long, Dick.  Soccer in the U.S. won’t miss you.

Ebersol may go down in history as the man whose largess with NBC’s money put the bling in the Olympic rings, but his coverage of Olympic soccer came grudgingly.  And some soccer fans in the U.S. may remember him as the guy who tried to throw a wet blanket over the 1994 World Cup, the event that went on to put a burgeoning sport here into overdrive.

NBC, which covered a handful of games during the 1986 World Cup, secured the rights to the 1994 World Cup along with SportsChannel America for $11.5 million–a ridiculous sum for a host nation.  FIFA in 1990 nullified that contract as part of a coup in which overmatched U.S. Soccer Federation and WorldCupUSA94 supremo Werner Fricker was replaced by Alan I. Rothenberg.  The rights went back on the open market, and NBC’s new sports guy, Dick Ebersol, declared, “We’re not going to bid, and I don’t know why anyone else would be interested.” 

Taken at his word, it looked for a time as though the first World Cup hosted by the United States would be blacked out across the United States.  Or, once again, available only through Spanish-language Univision.   Fans here held their breath.   Fortunately, two years before kickoff, ABC/ESPN stepped forward with a more respectable bid of $23 million, and everyone exhaled. 

It may have been for the best.  Had NBC and SportsChannel remained the tournament broadcaster, they certainly were not about to televise all 52 matches, as ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 did–an American first.   And it can’t be assumed that NBC/SportsChannel would have come up with the continuous sponsor/score/time graphic in the corner of the screen, another American first that has since become a staple of televised team sports.  Without that, NBC/SportsChannel likely would have resorted to what other U.S. broadcasters had when faced with covering soccer:  the dreaded commercial break during the action.

In the end, Ebersol, the man who turned his back on soccer to champion the Olympics ended his NBC tenure with a 2010 in which the Vancouver Winter Olympics lost $223 million while that summer’s World Cup eclipsed the summer Olympics as the world’s most-watched sporting extravaganza.



CHAMPION OF THE OLYMPICS, SANS SOCCER

Jonah J. “Bud” Greenspan, whose soaring documentaries lifted the Olympic Games to near-mythical status for a generation of Americans, died in New York City at age 84. 

Greenspan began his filmmaking career in 1952 with a 15-minute feature on a U.S. gold medalist in weightlifting and went on to win a long string of honors for his work, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America and a Peabody Award for “distinguished and meritorious public service.”   He collected his first Emmy for The Olympiad, a 22-hour documentary featuring Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin that debuted in 1976 and was aired in 80 countries.

In 1985, in presenting Greenspan the Olympic Order award, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch proclaimed, “Mr. Greenspan has been called the foremost producer, writer and director of Olympic films; more than that, he is an everlasting friend of the Olympic family.”  [December 25]

Comment:  No one individual not connected with a major American television network deserves more credit than Greenspan for planting the irresistable falsehood in the United States that the Olympics are the be-all and end-all in international sport.  Combine Greenspan’s well-crafted documentaries with the power of ABC Sports and, later, NBC Sports, and it was made clear to Americans that nothing in sports can stop traffic in Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, London, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Rome, Madrid, Mexico City, Seoul, Tehran, etc., etc., etc., like an Olympics (a winter Olympics included). 

Greenspan had no time for the money-spinner of every summer Olympics, the soccer tournament.  He had no interest in the filled stadiums and compelling story lines offered by Olympic soccer, so thanks to him and Roone Arledge of ABC and, later, Dick Ebersol of NBC, about a quarter century of quality soccer exposure in the U.S. was lost.  That is why today there remains a whole host of Americans with a slight relationship with soccer who still believe it would be much, much more noteworthy for USA men or women to win an Olympic gold in soccer than capture a World Cup.