The following is an excerpt from a work in progress by Neal Pilson on a look back at network life at CBS Sports and beyond.
“You just cannot do this to Larry O’Brien.”
During the last weeks of Bob Wussler’s presidency of CBS Sports, he and the commissioner of the NBA, Larry O’Brien, were involved in renegotiating the television broadcast agreement between CBS and the NBA. It was 1978 and CBS held all the cards. While it may seem hard to believe now, in 1978 the NBA was an unwanted stepchild as far as network television was concerned.
CBS had been televising the NBA for over 10 years but ratings were weak, CBS affiliates in increasing numbers were declining to clear the broadcasts, and the network salespeople were complaining that the commercial units were hard to sell. The league had acknowledged its “image problems” (perceived as “too Black” and “too urban”), and CBS management was soon to make a big play for the NCAA Basketball Tournament to satisfy an affiliate body that was much more interested in basketball of the college variety.
Despite opposition within CBS, Bob persisted in his efforts to renew the deal. He and Larry reached a handshake agreement that guaranteed the NBA four (that’s right, four) regular-season exposures on CBS plus some playoff games and a largely tape-delayed finals. The network would not carry prime-time games live (they were taped for later broadcast after 11:30 p.m.). It was the best Bob could do and, given the state of the NBA at the time, the best Larry O’Brien could do. No other network was interested in the league. As far as television was concerned, it was the low point for the NBA. I was the business affairs vice president of sports and worked with Bob to get the deal negotiated. My opposite number at the NBA was a young attorney named David Stern.
Unfortunately for Bob, while he was in discussions with Commissioner O’Brien, the “Winner-Take-All” tennis scandal erupted, accompanied by hearings in Washington before congressional committees and the Federal Communications Commission, endless negative press and nonstop meetings within CBS involving senior management and the law department. The end result was that Bob had to accept responsibility for the tennis problems and was forced to resign from the company. He left after his handshake agreement with Larry on the basketball deal, but before David and I were able to conclude a written contract.
The new president of CBS Sports was Frank Smith. Frank was one tough customer. His prior position was as head of network sales where he was responsible for the $2 billion sales budget for the entire broadcast group. Frank was also among the critics within the company as far as the NBA deal was concerned. Frank loved golf and the NFL but had very little enthusiasm for professional basketball and even less for Bob Wussler’s agreement with the NBA.
I had heard all this through the company grapevine so when Frank called me into his office to inquire about the status of the NBA deal, I was not surprised when he asked me: “Do we have a deal here or what? There is nothing in writing, is there?”
“Well, Frank, we do have a deal. I was there when Bob and Larry shook hands. But it’s not a contract that can be performed within a year and I think, under New York law, it’s probably not enforceable unless in writing. But we have a prior relationship with the NBA and I would hate to tell Larry and David that CBS is pulling out. It really won’t look good for CBS. We would be going back on our word.”
Frank responded: “Neal, you don’t have to tell them. I will. Schedule a meeting. Have Larry and David come up to my office.”
Sure enough, at the meeting Frank told Larry and David he could not support Bob’s deal and CBS was going to end its coverage of the NBA once the present contract was over. Commissioner O’Brien was very upset. He had taken Bob at his word, had informed his owners of the new deal and insisted that CBS observe the commitment given by the former president of sports. Frank was adamant. It was not pleasant.
David grabbed me and asked to step into the hall. He was red-faced and so angry he almost could not get his words out. “You just cannot do this to Larry O’Brien.” He paused to catch his breath. “Larry had a tough enough time selling the deal to his owners and he could not go back and tell them CBS had reneged. He could not do it. You have to honor the deal.” I told David we should end our meeting before Frank and Larry exchanged blows inside the office, and I would try to get Frank to reconsider.
The rest, as they say, is history: Because David insisted that CBS act with honor and dignity; because Frank, in the end, was a longtime CBS executive who believed that CBS’s reputation for integrity had to be preserved, I was able to persuade Frank to accept Bob’s deal. The NBA began to grow in popularity. David became commissioner. Within four years, CBS renewed the “handshake” deal on much more favorable terms for the NBA. Eventually CBS lost the NBA to NBC, which took the league to a new level of prosperity.
But back in 1978, the NBA came very close to losing its network television exposure.
Neal Pilson is founder and president of Pilson Communications.
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