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Original Issue

Healer Dealer

Five months after surviving a tragic plane crash, Dick Ebersol struck a bargain with the NFL that is good news for the NBC executive, the league and fans

Just past 5 p.m. on April 16th, a sun-kissed early-spring afternoon, Dick Ebersol moved through Manhattan's East Side in a haze, lost in thought and leaning hard on his cane. Minutes earlier the NBC Sports chairman had agreed in principle with NFL officials on a six-year, $3.6 billion deal that would return the league to NBC in 2006 after a nine-year absence. Though the news would be eclipsed by word that Monday Night Football will move from ABC to ESPN (ending a 35-year run on the network), Ebersol still had reason to rejoice. He had negotiated a deal that was great for his company and for football fans, because NBC can choose the late-season games it will show.

For Ebersol, 58, this was the first time in a long time that he had something to feel good about. The deal was his first since he returned to work following the crash of a private jet during takeoff in Montrose, Colo., on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The accident claimed the lives of three of the six people aboard, including his 14-year-old son, Teddy. (An unconscious Ebersol was pulled from the wreckage by his 21-year-old son, Charlie.) It seemed Ebersol's three-decade career might be over.

His resolve to return to work crystallized during Teddy's funeral. In her eulogy, Ebersol's wife, actress Susan St. James, spoke to Ebersol as he lay in a mobile hospital bed, swaddled in a heap of blankets topped by one from Teddy's favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. "Never feel any guilt about the times you were away," she said. "By doing everything you've done, you gave our whole family its energy. And Teddy absolutely revered you for it." Ebersol, who declines to discuss the crash, says only, "I realized that in a way my work propels me. And I wanted to get back--for myself, for my family--to a place where I could do something big."

In February 2003 Ebersol and league officials began informally discussing a possible package for NBC's cable sibling, USA Network. But Broncos owner (and NFL broadcast committee chairman) Pat Bowlen called Ebersol last October with a significant piece of news: The league wanted a network partner for its Sunday-night package and was willing to grant that network the option of poaching games from CBS or Fox over the season's final seven weeks. (Because switching a game from Sunday to Monday would be a logistical nightmare, the same offer was never extended to MNF--which was reportedly losing $150 million a year, in part because of unattractive matchups.) "Schedule flexibility was the one must-have component," Ebersol says. "When it was offered, we wanted in." Ebersol met informally with league officials in November, and he was optimistic as he returned to Telluride for Thanksgiving. "Then," he says, his voice shaky, "my life as I knew it ended."

In the crash Ebersol suffered a broken pelvis, broken coccyx and six broken vertebrae. He was bedridden for 231/2 hours a day until late January, doing little work. But a call to Bowlen during Super Bowl week rekindled interest on both sides, and Ebersol--along with Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, NBC's parent company--set about crafting a deal.

What they finally settled on--$600 million a year for six years--buys NBC, flailing a distant fourth in the ratings race, four hours of potential top 10 prime-time programming every week, as well as two Super Bowls (2009 and '12), the annual Thursday-night opener and two wild-card games each season. The network also gets a platform from which to plug its prime-time lineup--and to challenge ABC's Sunday-night powerhouse, Desperate Housewives. The pact is also filled with groundbreaking cross-promotional deals: GE's stake in an existing league-financed loan pool (used for new-stadium funds) will grow; GE's new stadium security and on-site medical technology will be promoted; and, of course, every stadium needs lightbulbs. Goldman Sachs estimates profits on the GE-based initiatives alone could total as much as $500 million.

Even for Ebersol--industry titan and negotiator nonpareil--this deal is a crowning achievement. But as he walked to his Upper East Side apartment, he was haunted by the notion that by being the big winner in a deal that left ABC without the NFL, he had somehow betrayed Roone Arledge, the late MNF mastermind who'd been his mentor. "It was sad because ABC has been in the business of trashing the legacy Roone Arledge set up," says Ebersol. "Monday Night Football was it--the explosion of sports as prime-time big business. I never thought I'd see the day it wouldn't exist. On that walk home I communed with Roone."

So on he walked under those impossibly blue skies: not quite happy, not that satisfied and not at all sure if he'd feel any different anytime soon. "Life," he says, "is much more bittersweet for me now. And probably will be for a long, long time."

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