When Denver Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen was a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019, one of his most outspoken and active supporters was former TV executive Dick Ebersol.
Whenever Ebersol had the opportunity, he campaigned hard for his friend’s place in Canton. And the reason, he said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, is easy to explain.
Not only did Bowlen’s Broncos have enormous success on the field — with seven Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl victories and an average o 10.2 victories per season during his tenure — but Bowlen made a significant impact within the league as a member of 15 committees.
Only two owners in league history — Dan Rooney (18) and Lamar Hunt (16) — were involved with more, and both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bowlen will join them if elected as a contributor on Feb. 4, 2019, and that should happen, Ebersol said, if for no other reason than what he did for the NFL with his work as chairman of its broadcast committee.
“There are two things that he was involved in and led,” Ebersol said, “that I think changed pro football forever in the last 25 years.”
The first was the 1993 TV negotiations, where Bowlen and Dallas owner Jerry Jones rejected an idea proposed by former Cleveland and Baltimore owner Art Modell, then-chairman of the NFL’s broadcast committee, to compensate networks for a depressed economy by giving them relief for the 1994 season.
“(Jerry and Pat) basically said, ‘Wait a minute. We bought into the NFL because we think it’s the best single entity in all of sports and all of entertainment,’ ” Ebersol recalled. “And that’s the first time I heard that from NFL owners. But Jerry and Pat believed that fervently. So they led a charge to have the Modell compromise annulled, canceled, no chance. And they succeeded overwhelmingly.”
In effect, they introduced Rupert Murdoch and FOX to the NFL broadcast family in a move that had such far-reaching repercussions Ebersol said it “changed the course of football.” FOX bought into the NFL at an enormous increase over past fees and forced NBC to reconsider options — ultimately jumping to up its offer to keep the NFL, eliminating CBS at that time from the network picture.
“Jerry (Jones) has said in the last year or two that he was the brawn and Pat was the brains,” said Ebersol. “Whatever. Those two guys pulled that off together, and I felt it was only right this time around — now that Jerry was in the Hall of Fame and Pat had come so close — (that Pat) really deserved to be in.”
But Ebersol’s reasoning didn’t stop there. He went closer to home, this time citing Bowlen’s role in bringing Sunday Night Football to TV. The idea, originally hatched by Ebersol, was embraced by Bowlen and sold to then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who, Ebersol said, thought it was “something that everybody should get behind.”
Everybody did, with the broadcast a colossal success that continues to dominate weekly and annual TV ratings.
“That’s why I have for years referred to Pat as ‘The Father of Sunday Night Football,’ ” said Ebersol. “Because it was his vision — the first power with vision — to embrace that this thing could be something special … which it has proven to be.
“I’m proud of the fact that between Pat Bowlen and I … and a few other people out of it … we created a prime-time giant. But all of this started because of Pat and Jerry standing up in the early ’90s and saying, ‘We’re not going to accept less.’ And that made the networks realize then that they had to pay more for football than they ever thought possible.
“But more importantly, it brought in that FOX money. And the NFL has had money galore in a way that it has never had before, and football has the resources to stay No. 1 for a long time — although they do have some challenges now, with the President and politics and so forth.
“But they aren’t of popularity. Nor are they of financial need. Those problems don’t exist for football anymore.”