Five years ago, NBC's sports division was the envy of other networks. It had the undervalued AFC package, an NBA deal that produced record ratings at the time (thanks to Michael Jordan and the Bulls), and several other profitable properties.
NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol was the unquestioned leader among TV sports executives.
Half a decade later, there isn't a major network sports division that would trade places with NBC.
The decline began with CBS' wresting away of AFC rights, continued with Jordan's premature retirement, the loss of postseason baseball to Fox, record-low Summer Olympic ratings, and the XFL disaster.
The NFL announced it will not exercise an out clause in its TV contracts, meaning the earliest NBC could bid again for rights is 2006.
NBC president Bob Wright says he doesn't regret leaving the NFL because "it would have wreaked havoc on us, would have made our prime-time commitments to ER and Friends, and things like that, prohibitive."
But it has worked for CBS, which beat NBC in prime-time ratings during the February sweeps period. (NBC remained No. 1 in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic group.)
"NBC adopted the philosophy that their NFL had to make money," former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson said. "CBS and Fox concluded it didn't. They looked at sports as part of a broadcast enterprise. Not every event has to be profitable. Fox proved the NFL was tremendously beneficial.
"NBC went back to the obsolete definition. I respectfully disagree with that. Baseball isn't that important one way or another. The NFL is."
The wisdom of giving up the NFL and postseason baseball is debatable. But NBC has only itself to blame for the XFL, one of the worst miscalculations in network history. The regular-season package averaged a 3.3 rating, well below the 4.5 promised to advertisers.
How NBC could have placed minor-league football in prime time without testing it in the afternoon first or on cable mystifies to this day.
"The XFL was a noble effort, but flawed," Pilson said. "From research we had done at CBS, I didn't think folks would watch Saturday night football after the Super Bowl."
Pilson doubts NBC will face strong competition to renew its NBA package after next season. But NBC's regular-season ratings have dipped from a 4.6 in Jordan's last season (1997-98) to a 3.0.
NBC is losing money on the NBA, and it seems to be affecting the on-air product.
The network saved six-figure expenses by eliminating each of its regional telecasts this month (such as Heat-Magic on Sunday) and airing all games nationally instead.
NASCAR, which moves from Fox to NBC in July as part of an annual rotation, should produce strong ratings but comes at a high price in a weak economy.
NBC also is increasing its modest commitment to extreme sports programming.
Most of what has happened to NBC Sports (outside of the XFL) has been beyond Ebersol's control, because General Electric has budget constraints.
But the bottom line is this: CBS and Fox have become today's leaders in (noncable) network sports television.