The Chuck Wielgus Blog: The Flip That Wasn't A Flop
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Every generation has its iconic figures, people who influence and change our culture. Dick Ebersol is one of these larger-than-life personalities. He was one of the creators of Saturday Night Live (SNL); a protégé of ABC’s Roone Arledge, Dick was a hands-on producer who changed the way we watched the Olympic Games; and as NBC Sports & Olympics Chair, he ensured NBC’s stature as the Official U.S. Olympic Broadcaster with an out-of-the box mega deal in 1995 that gave NBC the rights to five Olympic Games. More recently, he engineered the creative scheduling package that brought the NFL back to NBC with Sunday’s “Football Night in America.”
When I began writing this blog, one of the things I promised to do was try to provide an insider view into how the sport works. Swimming’s profile is higher today than ever before, and many people credit Michael Phelps for that. But I think even Michael will agree that one of the critical things that catapulted swimming to the top of the Olympic sports mountain was the television platform that NBC provided when it broadcast swimming live at the Beijing Olympic Games, and the driving force behind that move was Dick Ebersol.
The story actually began with the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. A 15-hour time difference had a negative impact on U.S. television ratings simply because people knew the results long before turning on their TVs that night. Given the enormous rights fees paid by the U.S. broadcaster, the IOC becomes understandably concerned when this happens.
In the spring of 2001, on the very eve of the IOC vote to select the 2008 host city, then IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch sent the Mayor of Beijing to meet with Dick Ebersol in his Moscow hotel room. At the meeting, Dick floated the idea of broadcasting swimming live as a means for addressing the time difference between Beijing and the United States. While it’s important to understand that NBC, or any other broadcaster for that matter, has no say in the Olympic City selection process, the seed of an idea had been planted.
Later that summer, the new IOC President, Jacques Rogge, was in the United States and made a visit to Colorado Springs. On his way back to Europe, he stopped in Martha’s Vineyard, where he and Ebersol enjoyed a long walk and again talked about making swimming the centerpiece for the Beijing Games with a live broadcast. Rogge made no firm commitments, but agreed to explore the idea with FINA and Beijing organizers.
Over the next two years the topic came up sporadically, and the quiet discussions evolved with the possibility of flipping the schedule so that preliminaries would be held at night and semi-finals and finals would take place the following morning.
Sadly, tragedy struck in November of 2004 when a private plane carrying the Ebersol family crashed in Montrose, Colo. The news sent shock waves throughout the sports world, and nowhere more so than at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and at the USOC and NGB headquarters in Colorado Springs, where Dick Ebersol is revered within the Olympic Family. Dick’s youngest son, Teddy, was killed in the crash and Dick was seriously injured. The outpouring of sympathy from throughout the world was overwhelming.
Still hobbling with a cane, Dick returned to work in March of 2005. On his very first day back in the office he was surprised by two visitors, Michael and Debbie Phelps. Dick told them about his dream of broadcasting swimming live in Beijing, and Michael’s response was enthusiastic. He told Dick, “This is the greatest thing that could ever happen. I want to help put swimming at the forefront of sport in the U.S. and what could be better than primetime television.”
Sometime later, I received a call from Dick’s assistant asking me to come to New York for a meeting. At this meeting, Dick outlined his dream, which by this time was starting to take hold in both Beijing and Lausanne. Undoubtedly, Michael’s response provided Dick with the confidence that U.S. athletes would accept the flipping of the schedule. The next level of concern was what Dick shared with me, “How will the U.S. coaches react?”
I assured Dick that most of America’s top coaches would recognize the incredible opportunity that our sport would be given with the live primetime broadcasts. The key was to not surprise them at the last minute, but rather give them time to wrap their heads around a flipped schedule, and then they’d figure out how best to prepare their athletes.
When I got home from New York, I shared the news with Mark Schubert, then USA Swimming’s National Team Head Coach. Mark understood the opportunity and took on the responsibility for ensuring that our National Team coaches would all be onboard. Any fear that the IOC or NBC had that U.S. coaches would not support the plan never materialized.
Coaches and athletes trepidation about the flipped schedule for Beijing was lessened when a few events in 2007 and 2008, including the Pan American Games in Brazil, were flipped to see how athletes would respond. Fortunately, there were no problems.
When the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games finally got underway, the first session of Finals was held on the morning of August 10 and broadcast live in primetime in the U.S. on August 9. Michael Phelps won the first of his eight gold medals in the 400 IM in world record time, and the rest is history. NBC’s broadcast broke every rating record and our sport took a huge leap forward in stature and public recognition. So, while we give credit to Michael Phelps and his unparalleled performance, we should also credit a visionary by the name of Dick Ebersol whose dream set the stage for our sport to reach unimagined new heights of popularity in this country.
Chuck Wielgus can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. All of his blogs are archived at www.usaswimming.org: click on “News” and then click on “Org News & Blogs”