Dick Ebersol resigned Thursday from his post atop NBC Sports Group, just one month to the day that he and the NHL announced a 10-year, $2 billion television contract that will keep hockey on NBC and VERSUS until 2021.
It was the biggest television deal in the history of the NHL, and if you want one reason why it became a reality, you have to look no further than Ebersol, the man who's run NBC Sports since 1989 (until Thursday). Ebersol facilitated that deal thanks to a close relationship with Gary Bettman, and he offered more to hockey than any of the other suitors could, including ESPN.
Quite simply, he believed in the NHL as a valuable television property and decided to throw everything his group had at retaining its American television rights. He indicated as much in an interview with Bettman on the Commissioner's SiriusXM program last month.
"In these last six years," he said, "the game has become much more fun for the fan and the viewer to watch. The game gives much more of an opportunity for the skills of the players to be seen. I think what [Bettman] did, in consultation with the players, really was remarkable and made the game a much better arena experience and obviously a much better television experience because it was a faster, cleaner game to watch and to enjoy."
If there's one thing Ebersol proved over the course of his tenure at NBC, it's that he knows when to jump on board with something. He did it with the NBA in the early 1990s and NBC rode the success of Michael Jordan to the bank. Of course, that was a different situation than the one the NHL currently faces.
It's not just a broadcast TV deal now. It's a cable deal, too, with the success of VERSUS a major question mark in the success or failure of that deal from the NHL's perspective.
With Ebersol at the helm, the overwhelming hope was that NBC Sports Group would use the Comcast money, the new NHL contract and the next few Olympics, as well as other properties, to turn VERSUS into a challenger to ESPN. Now, without Ebersol, the ability of NBC to land those Olympic deals in 2014 and 2016 is in question, and thus, the ability to turn VERSUS into a major challenger for ESPN sooner rather than later is in question as well.
A lot will fall on Mark Lazarus, who joined NBC Sports Group as the head of their cable-side operations in February. Lazarus, who also holds a stake in SB Nation, has big shoes to fill at NBC, and the success of the NHL's mammoth TV deal is just a part of that.