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NBC's Dick Ebersol: U.S. Olympic Committee needs 'real leaders'

October 4, 2009 | 11:10 am
NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol did not only blame the U.S. Olympic Committee for Chicago's humiliating first-round ouster in the voting for 2016 Summer Olympics host.

When he spoke with me Friday a few hours after it happened, Ebersol also recommended new USOC leadership, which would replace acting Chief Executive Stephanie Streeter, and a new commitment from the organization's volunteer leader, Chairman Larry Probst.

"They don't need to have any more congressional reforms," Ebersol said, referring to the hearings that led to USOC reorganization in 2003. "Just get real leaders.

"You've either got people who were hired by search firms or people who don't care enough to make it their full-time jobs."

The two CEOs forced out in the turmoil that led to the reforms, Norm Blake and Lloyd Ward, were hired by search firms, and the USOC announced it will initiate a new search for the CEO position this fall. Streeter, who became acting CEO in March when a power play on the USOC board ousted Jim Scherr, has not definitively said she wants to be considered for the permanent position.

In December, barely a month after he succeeded Peter Ueberroth, whose term as chairman had expired, Probst told me and several other reporters in a round-table interview that Ueberroth had snookered him on the amount of time the chairman's job required.

That was meant to be a joke, but Probst, who had retired as chairman of video games giant Electronic Arts, acknowledged that he was surprised by how much work the job entailed. After the Chicago defeat, he told people close to the USOC that he needed to decide in the next month whether to plunge into the job with both feet or step away.

That neither he nor Streeter attended a pivotal International Olympic Committee meeting this June in Switzerland, a first-ever technical presentation to the full IOC membership by the bid cities, was noticed. Both wasted a chance to get to know IOC members, who have lost confidence in the USOC during its years of revolving-door leadership.

Many had never met Streeter and Probst until the final run-up to Friday's vote. She said after Friday's vote that the USOC lacked experience in international sports politics.

Neither had any relationship to Olympic affairs until joining the USOC board, Streeter five years ago, Probst last fall. [Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Streeter joined the board nearly four years ago.]

"There was a feeling Probst and Streeter didn't care enough to go to Lausanne [Switzerland], when every other national Olympic committee leader [from the bid cities' countries], all of them far more experienced, went to Lausanne," Ebersol said after talking with IOC members in Denmark last week.

Some prominent IOC members, including Denis Oswald of Switzerland, mentioned publicly or privately their incomprehension over Streeter's compensation, which I disclosed in an August story was $560,000 in salary with bonuses that could add $1 million.

"It is my feeling that everything which happened [at the USOC], all the changes of people, the information about salaries which were paid, [it] probably played a certain role and did not give full confidence," Oswald said when asked for an explanation of how a strong Chicago bid went out in the first round.

The salaries -- including that of Chief Operating Officer Norm Bellingham, whose total compensation in 2008 was $663,000 -- were an irritant because the USOC long had been refusing to budge in discussions over reducing its share of U.S. broadcast rights (12.75%) and global Olympic sponsorship (20%), even as more than half of the global sponsors no longer were from the United States. Those revenues are more than 50% of the USOC's quadrennial operating budget.

"What bothers the IOC members is paying that kind of money to someone like Streeter who is so inexperienced in Olympic matters," Ebersol said. "Her salary, she and Probst not showing up in Lausanne -- it's like nobody in the USOC hears the messages the IOC is sending."

Ebersol said the revenue-sharing deals need to be restructured immediately to give U.S. cities hope in future host city bids. The USOC agreed in March to renegotiate, creating an apparent truce with the IOC that did not hold when the USOC defied the IOC's warnings and pushed forward with announcement of its U.S. Olympic network.

"The four [of nine] U.S. sponsors in TOP [the IOC global program] -- General Electric, Visa, McDonald's and Coca-Cola -- didn't do this for domestic reasons," Ebersol said. "They did it for international marketing. If they wanted only the domestic audience, they would just buy time on our Olympic broadcasts."

It is certain Ebersol's words will fuel the critics of Streeter, most of whom held their fire in the final month before the 2016 vote in an effort not to say something that could hurt Chicago's bid.

One of those was Skip Gilbert, chairman of the National Governing Bodies council, who told me last month that he would defer further comment on the USOC leadership until after the vote.

There is a caveat necessary here: Ebersol has a vested interest in this, because he remains angry that the USOC went forward with its own plans for an Olympic network rather than join forces with NBC, the officially designated Olympic network in the United States. A deal specifically would have involved Universal Sports, the NBC subsidiary that owns rights to many Olympic-related sports properties.

But his indignation is more than self-serving. Ebersol feels special frustration because he fell in love with the Olympics as a Yale student 41 years ago and has led NBC to purchase U.S. rights for several Olympics since then, including every Summer Games since 1988 and the five Olympics, winter and summer, from 2000 through 2012, for which NBC paid $5.7 billion.

U.S. rights for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics have yet to be awarded. NBC is expected to remain a player in the bargaining. Ebersol's presence in Copenhagen last week might have owed to an effort to make another preemptive strike by persuading the IOC to cut another deal by taking an NBC offer before bidding begins, as has happened a couple times in the past.

The IOC's anger over the USOC network arose from its desire to protect NBC -- not surprising, since NBC has provided more than half of the IOC's global broadcast revenues over the term of its current deal. The USOC network is likely to lose $25 million to $50 million annually for the foreseeable future.

"The announcement of the network made the IOC suspicious that [the revenue-sharing negotiations would stop], and the USOC would just take the sponsorship money and use it for the network," Ebersol said. "They [the IOC] may be paranoid, but that is the way some members see it."

Chicago 2016 chairman Pat Ryan continued to bite his tongue about the USOC after Friday's defeat. And probably nothing would have stopped Rio from becoming the 2016 host. But Chicago needn't have been made the whipping boy for USOC leadership issues.

-- Philip Hersh in Copenhagen