Ebersol’s Gridiron Groove

Oct 9, 2006  •  Post A Comment

On Sunday, Oct. 1, Dick Ebersol was in Chicago working the night shift.

Since the beginning of the football season, the chairman of NBC Sports & Olympics has been putting in seven-day weeks, traveling with announcers John Madden, Al Michaels and about 125 others to the site of the network’s prime-time “Sunday Night Football” broadcast.

Before the game, Mr. Ebersol walked the sideline in the refurbished Soldier Field, where he was greeted by Bears Chairman Michael McCaskey.

Both men were smiling. Mr. Ebersol’s $3.6 billion bet on broadcasting Sunday night National Football League games is paying off big-time so far in ratings, revenue and promotional opportunities for NBC’s slate. Though the Bears smothered the Seattle Seahawks in the Oct. 1 game, viewership this season is exceeding expectations. It’s also up over the numbers “Monday Night Football” used to generate on ABC.

“It’s gone very well,” said Mr. Ebersol, who later settled into a seat in a brand-new, $10 million high-definition production truck to supervise the broadcast. “Every game has been substantially ahead of the prime-time average of a year ago.”

NBC got out of the NFL business eight years ago because Mr. Ebersol didn’t think the network could turn a profit with the games. In those days, NBC was riding high as the dominant network. Since then the calculus has changed, with NBC dropping to fourth place in prime time and seizing on the NFL as a way to bolster ratings.

Given “Sunday Night Football’s” performance so far, Mr. Ebersol said he expects NBC to make money on football in its first season, NBC is paying an average of $600 million per season for the games, though payments to the league are staggered so networks pay the most in the year they broadcast the Super Bowl. This season CBS will broadcast the game, which historically is the most-watched TV program each year.

With regular-season games drawing more than the 11 household rating NBC promised advertisers, “it’s hard to imagine a make-good situation” in which the network would have to give advertisers extra ads, reducing the inventory available for sale, Mr. Ebersol said.

ABC claimed it was losing $150 million in a year when it gave up the broadcast version of its “Monday Night Football.” NBC has the advantage of running an hour-long studio show, “Football Night in America,” in prime time preceding the game. The extra 10 to 12 commercials that the program accommodates appears to be the difference between fumbling cash and scoring a fiscal touchdown.

Mr. Ebersol is looking forward to later in the season, when, for the first time, flexible scheduling will kick in, ensuring that terrible matchups don’t appear in prime time.

While CBS and Fox will be able to protect some of the good Sunday afternoon contests they have slated from being shifted to prime time, the NFL will pick games for NBC that will “protect the downside,” Mr. Ebersol said.

Ratings between poor teams dogged ABC’s “Monday Night Football” over the past three years. During those seasons, only one game featured two winning teams, Mr. Ebersol said, dampening enthusiasm for the franchise and deflating ratings.

Through five games, NBC has been averaging a 12 Nielsen Media Research household rating and 8 share with football on Sunday nights. That’s up 9 percent from what ABC’s “Monday Night Football” garnered in 2005.

For theOct. 1 Bears-Seahawks game, NBC won the night with a 5.9 rating, about double last year’s number for the night.

“The first two games certainly got them off to a good start. The second two have come down to a realistic number,” said Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing for OMD/Optimum Sports. “The biggest thing is they’re not going to have the big drop-off in December.”

NBC’s flexibility is a draw for advertisers late in the season.

“In the past, maybe you didn’t want to take some games that may have been questionable,” Mr. McGovern said. “Now you know you’re at least going to have a good game. It takes some of the risk out of it for NBC, it takes it out for the NFL, it takes it out for the advertiser.”

Advertising time during the first few weeks of the season sold out quickly, with 30-second spots selling for more than $300,000, Mr. McGovern said. The market for ad time during NFL games is relatively strong, he said. While there are opportunities to score deals some weeks, on other weeks the spots go for a premium.

The games have also given NBC’s other programming a boost. Without sports, NBC’s rating among viewers ages 18 to 49 is up 4 percent. Counting sports, it’s up about 15 percent.

“That’s a pretty big jump,” Mr. McGovern said. Football on Sunday gives the network one less night to program and extra time to develop a Sunday night show that will air when the NFL season ends, he said.

Mr. Ebersol said he agreed to travel to each game and executive produce “Sunday Night Football” at least during the first season of NBC’s agreement with the NFL. Though NBC has done football before, “This is prime time. It’s a whole different thing,” he said.

Mr. Ebersol said it’s been fun so far, despite the grueling travel schedule. He said he arrives in the home team’s city on Thursday and leaves either Sunday night after the game or early Monday morning. He puts in a short day at the office at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters on Monday, then works Tuesday and Wednesday before hitting the road again.

The Chicago trip gave Mr. Ebersol a chance to visit NBC Sports’s other big fall franchise, University of Notre Dame football, on a Saturday when the Irish were playing Indiana rival Purdue. The Irish got a victory and Mr. Ebersol got a surprise.

During halftime, Mr. Ebersol was asked to leave the press box and go down to the field with NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer. There he was presented with an honorary monogram from Notre Dame’s monogram club, which awards letter jackets to the school’s varsity athletes. About 200 dignitaries have received the honor, including Presidents Ford and Reagan and Pope John Paul II.

Revenue from NBC’s broadcast deals with Notre Dame has gone into an endowment fund that has grown from $88 million in 1988 to $1.1 billion in March. Mr. Ebersol said he is proud that the money has provided financial aid for about 1,700 students.

Mr. Schanzer, who urged Mr. Ebersol to visit South Bend during the trip, got a surprise of his own during the ceremony. The club also awarded him a monogram.

“It was a triple fake,” Mr. Ebersol said.