Ebersol got his start in the television business as a researcher for the Olympics under the wing of legendary ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge. He first joined NBC in 1974 and was charged with creating a late-night entertainment program, and along with Lorne Michaels developed "Saturday Night Live."
He left NBC in 1985 to become an independent producer and returned in 1989 as head of sports. Ebersol produced eight of the top 10 "most-watched" events in the U.S., a feat he pointed out Monday when he spoke to advertisers in New York. But he will be most remembered for his distinctive storytelling style and for making NBC the home of the Olympics.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Ebersol realized the old "us versus them" mentality that hit a high-water mark when the American hockey team defeated the Soviets at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 would no longer work in a post-Cold War world.
"The Olympics changed forever on that day," Ebersol said. Without a generic bad guy, the athlete's story became paramount. "You had to bring these people to life."
Costas explained Ebersol's contribution to sports broadcasting this way: "The vast majority of people don't follow figure skating, skiing or track and field. In the Olympics you have to make viewers care about the athletes as people, the venues, the pageantry and the panorama.... If you didn't do that, then the audience for the Olympics would be the same as the viewership for a first-rate weekend track and field meet that runs on any cable channel."
Costas added that NBC Sports, under Ebersol, transformed NBA athletes like Michael Jordan into superstar personalities.
Ebersol was not without his missteps. He made the controversial decision to ease the beloved "Today" show co-anchor Jane Pauley out in favor of the younger, blonder Deborah Norville. The move incurred the wrath of much of America, and Norville was replaced by another up-and-comer whom viewers grew to love, Katie Couric.
On the sports front, Ebersol made an embarrassing attempt to create a rival to the National Football League. He teamed up with wrestling impresario Vince McMahon to create a springtime football league, the XFL, that flamed out after one season.
Whether NBC Sports under Comcast will be as ambitious as under Ebersol is a "valid question," Costas acknowledged.
Comcast is seeking to downplay such concerns. In fact, Chief Executive Brian Roberts plans to fly to Switzerland as part of Comcast's delegation to assure the International Olympics Committee that the company is interested. Rival bidders include News Corp.'s Fox and Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN.
"We will have to wait and see. Comcast has certainly made sports a big part of their business and the guys at the top are sports fans," Costas said. "But they are businessmen too. "
Ebersol said he had no immediate professional plans and said he couldn't imagine returning to another executive position.
"I'm going to take at least a year off," he said. "Or maybe forever."