Speaking to Dick Ebersol, the ‘most powerful person in sports,’ is like getting a masterclass in the art of storytelling.
Ebersol recently joined me on video from his home in Telluride, Colorado, to talk about his new book, From Saturday Night to Sunday Night.
Ebersol’s memoir takes readers behind the scenes as he co-created Saturday Night Live with Lorne Michaels to pioneering Olympics and sports coverage on NBC. I contacted Ebersol after being struck by how often “storytelling” appears in his book.
Although Ebersol’s book offers an engaging history of television sports, it also delivers valuable insights for professionals in any field who need to create content and present ideas that engage, motivate, and move their audiences.
“My priority was story, story, story.”
Televised sports are far different today than before Ebersol put his stamp on NBC’s sports and Olympics coverage. For most viewers, it’s hard to fathom that college football games were once broadcast from just one camera positioned in the announcer’s booth. That began to change under Ebersol’s first boss, ABC president Roone Arledge. Ebersol credits Arledge for pioneering the reinvention of televised sports into a storytelling medium.
Arledge reimagined sports broadcasting in 1960 with a now famous memo that read: “We are going to add show business to sports.”
“Every game would be an epic story to tell,” Ebersol says. “The way to capture audiences for unfamiliar sports was to tell the stories of the athletes competing: to pique their curiosity and give them a rooting interest.”
The mission of ABC Sports was to tell the viewers a story. To do so, Arledge added cameras mounted on risers to offer different angles. Meanwhile, roving hand-held cameras captured the action on the sides and huge boom microphones captured the sounds on the field.
“He [Arledge] wanted the audience to see and hear the cheering in the stands, players celebrating their touchdowns on the sidelines, coaches screaming at referees for bad calls,” writes Ebersol.
Ebersol played a role in creating those epic stories when he accepted his first job at ABC as an Olympics researcher, a position that didn’t exist at any of the networks. The year was 1967, and the Internet didn’t yet exist. It meant Ebersol would have to travel across the U.S. and Europe to find the best stories for announcers like Jim McKay to share with the public on Wide World of Sports and the 1968 Olympics. Ebersol interviewed athletes, coaches, and their families to learn as much as he could about their personal stories, stories that would appeal to more viewers.
“You could not have asked for better teachers of storytelling that Jim and Roone,” Ebersol recalls. “They were my mentors. I was blessed.”
The lessons Ebersol learned from those teachers came back to him years later when, in 1989, NBC asked him to lead the network’s sports division. Ebersol called a meeting of about a hundred people and articulated his vision: “from now on, NBC Sports will put a premium on storytelling.”
He said viewers should know the athletes, their backgrounds, and the challenges they had to overcome to play on the big stage—whether it be the NBA, the World Series, the Super Bowl, or the Olympics.
“Storytelling was not a course they taught at NBC,” Ebersol recalls. “My priority was story, story, story.”
Storytelling is collaborative.
Ebersol’s experience and insights should remind leaders that storytelling is collaborative, “a team sport.”
Storytelling plays a vital role in every organization. Universities share inspiring alumni stories to attract high-caliber applicants. Startup entrepreneurs share origin stories to attract investors and motivate teams. And companies of every size share customer success stories to attract more customers.
As a leader, you might be the one sharing stories in presentations, memos, articles, and interviews. But since storytelling is a team sport, the task of finding and compiling those stories into compelling narratives should be everyone’s responsibility.
Yes, marketing and publicity departments can turn those stories into assets to share across platforms, but leaders should help identify stories from their trips and salespeople should return from their meetings with fresh customer stories and case studies.
According to Ebersol, the Olympics is “the crucible of storytelling” because most viewers only tune in when they care about the athletes and once they hear stories that touch their hearts. A similar formula plays out for any business—customers and employees are more likely to connect with a brand if they’re moved by the story.
Build a storytelling team to race ahead of the competition.