A Tough Season

It was supposed to have been another buoyant night for Dick Ebersol. The chairman of NBC Sports had settled into the cramped production trailer outside the Coliseum in L.A. on a recent Saturday to watch a raucous game of XFL football, the league he had launched with the World Wrestling Federation. The XFL's debut the previous week had been a ratings smash. Ebersol knew it would be tough to match that showing, when many tuned in to see, as he says, "if we would have naked cheerleaders running around with chairs to break over the heads of referees." Still, he was pumped. The XFL game would be followed by "Saturday Night Live," guest-starring the white-hot Jennifer Lopez.

But the evening headed south not long after first snap of the football. NBC briefly lost electrical power, robbing viewers of five touchdowns between the L.A. Xtremes and Chicago Enforcers. Then the game dragged on into double overtime, pushing back "SNL's" start by 45 minutes. Ebersol could only hope that fans were glued to their sets for the exciting finish. But they weren't. The ratings for XFL plummeted. And for days after, the media chewed over NBC's fumbles. "We have to ignore the babble,'' Ebersol told NEWSWEEK in his first extended interview since the launch of the league.

Of all the glamorous media jobs, Ebersol has one of the best--boss of the NBC Sports empire, which includes rights to broadcast NBA games and the Olympics. With it comes nonstop action and hanging out with superstar athletes. But lately Ebersol--who has spent 33 of his 53 years in network TV-- can sympathize with quarterbacks who've been sacked by the menacing Baltimore Ravens defense. His reputation as the savvy dean of network-sports chiefs is taking a beating. And the XFL isn't his only concern: there may be a bidding war with media giants like Disney or News Corp. for the rights to carry the NBA. Then there's the Olympics. NBC paid $3.5 billion to air the Games through 2008. It managed to eke out a profit on the Sydney Games. But to make the bet really pay off, Ebersol must generate strong ratings in Salt Lake City next year and in the following Games in Athens, Greece; Turin, Italy, and a site to be named for 2008. Add it all up, including the loss in recent years of rights to the NFL and Major League Baseball, and NBC "is at a crossroad,'' says Bob Gutkowski, a top sports executive.

True, the same applies to all of sports television. New rivals--cable TV, satellite TV and the Internet--have splintered viewership, resulting in historically low ratings for most sports. As more bidders crowd in, the price tag for TV rights multiplies. Except for Tiger, there's no Jordanesque megastar to woo fans. And in this age of media conglomerates, there's a growing demand for quick profits from parent companies like AOL Time Warner, Disney and News Corp. While the risks have grown, the major networks have no choice but to play. Sports bring prestige, promote prime-time shows and lure audiences of young, acquisitive men that advertisers covet.

Despite his other worries, the XFL is beginning to look like Ebersol's most questionable move yet at NBC Sports. Going into week four, the XFL's TV audience has fallen from about 16 million homes to roughly 5 million. Advertisers may be getting skittish--Honda has dropped out of the programming. And the water-cooler talk has turned from scantily clad cheerleaders to how long the XFL will survive.

Of course, that's not how Ebersol regards the venture, in which NBC invested $50 million as an equal partner with the WWF. He says the XFL represents a bold attempt to shake up football coverage, offering viewers in-your-face camera angles and, well, WWF attitude. Ebersol told NEWSWEEK that the XFL ratings picture isn't as gloomy as the media suggest. Although weaker than the network would like, the numbers aren't too far off from what NBC promised advertisers--and more households tuned in to the games than watched the movies that football replaced in the typically weak Saturday-night slot. Ebersol insists that NBC will stick it out with the fledgling XFL--for now, anyway. "Week in and week out, it's pretty successful," he says. An NBC spokeswoman said top executives remain "extremely supportive." She added: "XFL is our version of reality TV."

And Ebersol, for all his recent woes, is still the current "Survivor'' champ of the TV-sports business. In 1968 he quit Yale to join ABC as the first Olympics researcher, then learned the business at the knee of the architect of modern sports television, Roone Arledge. In 1989 NBC tapped him to run its struggling sports division. He grabbed rights to the NBA and later added baseball and football to NBC's corral. He also helped create "Saturday Night Live," one of the longest-running hits in TV history.

NBC eventually lost the rights to baseball and football by passing on the sky-high TV rights. But the peacock network remains a potent sports force. In addition to the NBA, its lineup includes WNBA, NASCAR, the PGA Tour, the Kentucky Derby and Wimbledon. NBC Sports has been profitable in eight of the last 10 years, according to Ebersol. And despite the current gloom, the overall audience for sports television is still growing. The problem, Ebersol explains, is that viewers keep racing around the dial, sampling the vast blizzard of sports-programming choices. "They just aren't settling in to one event," he says.

In a world of channel surfers, the NBA remains a relatively reliable draw, and NBC wants to maintain its longstanding ties to that league. But there are limits to how much NBC will pay to stay in the game. The expression "at any cost'' isn't part of the vernacular at GE, NBC's parent, Ebersol says. NBA boss David Stern told NEWSWEEK that NBC is his first choice. But he added that the league is "desirable to a broad array of broadcasters" and that he "fully expects our rights fees to rise." Potential bidding wars are one reason the NBC decided to seek an ownership stake in the XFL. It "opened the possibility of freeing ourselves from the rights equation," he says.

But it looks like a long shot that the XFL will be around in a few years--at about the time NBC initially projected the league to turn profitable. The network has committed to the league for two years, but many industry executives doubt the XFL will make it that far. Ebersol seems to hedge when asked whether the XFL will return next season. As for Ebersol, his contract with NBC lasts through 2004. He's coy about his future plans, saying he'll take the next two years to consider his options. He says he'd like to spend some quieter days reading the stacks of books that fill his NBC office. Are those sports books? "No, a mix of fiction and biography," he says. "I live sports, so there's not many stories I've missed." And despite a tough season, Ebersol's own story is most likely far from over.